Does the U.S. Care About Women Around the World?

Anu Kumar

Women around the world wonder: does the United States care about them at all? Last week's Supreme Court ruling sends a chill far beyond U.S. borders, even if it only bans a fraction of all U.S. abortion procedures. By saying so clearly that American women's health and lives are not a priority, the Supreme Court sends a message to the rest of the world that America does not value its women. What, then, could the message be for the rest of the world's women?

Imagine the headlines around the world: "The United States bans abortion procedure." Last week's Supreme Court ruling sends a chill far beyond U.S. borders, even if it only bans a fraction of all U.S. procedures. Every year, nearly 70,000 women around the world die and 5 million more are hospitalized from complications of unsafe abortion. The health dimension of abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973 and the heavy toll that it took on American women's lives rarely gets attention in the U.S. media.

It's all politics and moralizing all the time.

The fact is that thousands of American women died before Roe. The fact is that thousands of women continue to die in the world today because access to safe abortion services is not available to them. And the fact is that countries have recognized this and are moving to reduce restrictions on abortions: since 1995, 16 countries in the last decade have reduced restrictions to abortion, countries that range from Colombia to Portugal to Ethiopia. Only six countries have gone the other way to increase restrictions, including the United States… right there with Nicaragua and El Salvador. Is this the company we wish to keep?

In Colombia, where it is estimated that 400,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, many under unsafe conditions, the Constitutional Court ruled that abortions will be permitted in cases of rape, fetal malformation, or when the life or health of the mother or fetus is in danger. Colombia has taken a step towards ensuring that women's lives are saved. In Portugal, where an estimated 15,000 women and girls seek unsafe abortions each year and some die from these procedures, the majority of voters in a national referendum cast ballots to broaden the circumstances in which abortion is permitted. In Ethiopia, where deaths and disabilities due to unsafe abortion are a public health crisis, the government dramatically broadened its law in an effort to save women's lives.

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Not only does the U.S. Supreme Court's decision go against the global trend of lifting restrictions on abortion, it also runs counter to the direction taken in international law. Under the 1985 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), governments are required to refrain from banning medical procedures only needed by women. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the primary body that monitors human rights in the Americas, declared abortion a human rights issue in the case of Paulina, a 13-year old Mexican girl who was denied a legal abortion by the public health system after she was raped. In the case of KL v Peru in 2005, the U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled that the rights of a 17-year old Peruvian girl had been violated when health officials denied her a therapeutic abortion although her fetus carried a fatal abnormality. And only a few weeks ago, the European Court of Human Rights awarded damages to a 36-year old Polish woman; it called on Poland to establish clear guidelines to ensure access to legal abortion when pregnancy threatens a woman's health.

Activists for sexual and reproductive rights have often said that with policies like the global gag rule, the anti-prostitution oath and set-asides for abstinence-only AIDS education, the United States is out of step with the rest of the world. This ruling shows that the United States is not just out of step with the rest of the world on abortion; it is behind the rest of the world. By saying so clearly that American women's health and lives are not a priority, the Supreme Court sends a message to the rest of the world that America does not value its women. What, then, could the message be for the rest of the world's women?

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