Overturning Roe v. Wade could impact how other countries view abortion rights

Pro-choice movements celebrate outside in support of the decriminalization of abortions from the penal code, outside the Constitutional Court in Bogota, Colombia on February 21, 2022. Abortions were decriminalized after 8 hours of debate leading now access for pregnant women to access them up to week 24. Photo by Chepa Beltran/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Only a few weeks remain until the Supreme Court makes a final decision on whether it will overturn Roe v. Wade, which it’s poised to do, according to a leaked draft opinion published by Politico.

If the ruling is reversed, and states have the right to restrict or outlaw abortion, the U.S. would become one of the few countries on the opposite side of a decades-long, global trend of increasing a woman’s right to choose, USA Today reports.

Distinguished Professor of law and associate dean for experiential education at Northeastern, Martha Davis poses for a portrait. Courtesy Photo

“There’s no doubt the United States is an influential country in many ways,” says Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law and co-director of Northeastern’s Center for Health Policy and Law. “And opponents of abortion in many countries will probably take heart from the changes in the United States, and feel supported by that.” 

So, in a post-Roe world, how would other countries view the Supreme Court’s decision? Would they follow in the footsteps of the U.S. or continue the momentum of allowing more access to abortion?

“I think that it actually will be significant. We see internationally an overall trend toward more liberalized access to abortion,” says Martha F. Davis, distinguished professor of law at Northeastern, who teaches constitutional law and human rights advocacy.

In the past 25 years, about 50 countries have increased legal access to abortion, including nations with prominent Catholic ties, Bloomberg reports.

“And the laws in the U.S have been a factor that has been cited by activists and

litigators, and those countries have taken that step,” Davis says. 

In December 2020, Argentina’s Congress legalized abortions of up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, which was considered a landmark vote in a conservative country. In February, the Constitutional Court in Colombia legalized the procedure until 24 weeks, allowing that nation to have the most progressive legal framework in Latin America.

“I think it will play out differently in different countries. Well-established democracies may look at this one way, thinking of countries in the EU or Canada,” Parmet says. “Countries that are dealing with sentient authoritarianism may deal with this in a very different way.”

Last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to punish abortion, which barred all jurisdictions from charging a woman with a crime for terminating a pregnancy. But statutes outlawing abortion are still on the books in almost all of Mexico’s 32 states. 

The countries where there has not been that trend—Poland, Honduras, and Venezuela, for example—are places where there’s a political trend toward autocracy, Davis says.

“So, not having a fundamental right, having half the states criminalize abortion will really put the U.S. in company with those countries,” Davis says. “Those countries we otherwise try to separate ourselves from politically.”

Wendy E. Parmet, Matthews University Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Besides Poland, most European countries have legalized abortion, including Ireland in 2018 when a referendum repealing the Eighth Amendment passed overwhelmingly by a margin of 66% to 34%, PBS News reports. The repeal allows for legal abortions during the first trimester or up to 12 weeks.

Other countries, such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, have total bans on abortion—with no exceptions—allowing courts to give women long prison sentences for aggravated homicide even in cases of miscarriage instead of an actual abortion, The Associated Press reports.

Will a U.S. Supreme Court decision incentivize other countries to do the same?

“I think it’s a real danger that it will provide new energy and rationalize folks that were already in opposition to liberalization in these other countries,” Davis says. “So it’s hard to know what’s going to come out at the end, but certainly the draft itself provides an important signal to other countries where the struggle is ongoing.”

NPR reports that the international rights group, Human Rights Watch, warned the Supreme Court in 2020 that if the High Court decides to overturn Roe v. Wade it would put the U.S. behind the curve of other countries that have expanded access to abortion care. 

“If the U.S. is pulling back rights for half the population, it really undermines the U.S. to be a leader in that field, and to have any credibility when talks are about human rights for women in other countries for example,” Davis says.