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The IBA’s response to the war in Ukraine
Six months after the US Supreme Court’s decision to affirm Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which limits, and in some cases eradicates, access to safe abortion services, the impact is being felt globally. ‘The hegemony of geopolitics is such that whether or not we want to acknowledge shifts in domestic laws and policies in the US, we do feel a ripple effect around the world’, says Nandini Mazumder, Assistant Coordinator at the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership.
While the US has no official say on other countries’ abortion rights, its status as a global leader has meant its move as one of only four countries to repeal abortion rights since 1994 is having an influence. There’s a trickle-down effect in action, says Mark Stephens CBE, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and a partner at Howard Kennedy. ‘The big message that everybody took away was it’s okay to restrict access to abortion, therefore to restrict access to women’s healthcare.’
For example, the East African Community Sexual and Reproductive Health Bill 2021, which is sitting in the region’s legislative assembly and is aimed at enhancing access to such services in six countries, has ‘fallen flat’, according to Dr Angela Akol, Director of Ipas Africa Alliance, which works to increase access to safe abortions and contraception. ‘In the last year, it’s been radio silence from the legislators, and we learned that meetings were held between some of the legislators and opposition members – groups that come out of the US – talking about how the bill is unsupported at different levels and is evil for various reasons’, she explains.
In July, Kenya introduced a ten-year reproductive health policy that stipulates the need for young people to have parental consent to access contraception. The policy comes in spite of a reported increase in teenage pregnancy in the country. In Nigeria, guidelines on the safe termination of pregnancy have been suspended by Lagos’ state government. ‘That was also, I believe, in response to some of the changes in global geopolitics that have taken place’, Akol says. A Lagos government spokesperson has reportedly described the suspension as being to ‘ensure adequate public sensitisation and stakeholder engagement to reach a consensus required for a successful guideline development’.
Baroness Helena Kennedy KC
Director, IBA’s Human Rights Institute
In India, where abortions have been legal since 1971 via the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, the Dobbs ruling has also given renewed hope to regressive forces that the decision to give access to safe abortion services can be reversed, Mazumder says. She adds that, across multiple countries, anti-choice groups have suddenly become more visible and are actively leading anti-abortion campaigns more strongly than before.
More legislative changes could be to come, warns Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, Director of the IBAHRI, especially given the rise of authoritarianism. ‘Where there is authoritarianism, it almost always goes hand-in-hand with very strong patriarchal ideas about the appropriate place of women in society and the importance of reproducing the dominant culture and being hostile to minorities’, she says. ‘But to force a woman to carry a pregnancy that they don’t want is just absurd in the contemporary world.’
Against this backdrop, progress in improving access to safe abortion seems bleak, but Katy Mayall, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Center for Reproductive Rights, based in New York, says that the global trend is in fact towards greater access. Over the past 30 years, close to 60 countries have liberalised their laws and policies to increase access to legal abortion. Only four – El Salvador, Nicaragua, Poland and the US – have rolled back those rights.
Mayall believes that, in some instances, the US ruling has only served to spur on progress by encouraging advocates to fortify the protection of abortion rights. ‘In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, there was a lot of fear amongst advocates that it was going to lead to a snowball effect, in particular because of the influence the US has […] but what we’ve seen is the reverse’, she says.
Since June, Finland has revised its abortion laws to reduce the number of doctors required to approve a procedure; President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone has voiced support for a bill that would decriminalise abortion and expand access; Israel has removed some procedural barriers to make abortion more accessible; and the Thai government has issued a new regulation amending the gestational limit for an abortion from 12 to 20 weeks. ‘That’s a significant amount [of change] for such a short period of time’, Mayall says.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr Jean-Claude Mulunda, the DRC Country Director at Ipas says the general attitude is that while the US’ position has changed, the DRC has the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa – also known as the Maputo Protocol – and will be sticking to it. ‘We can’t change a decision coming from the African Union because we want to follow what is happening in the US. It’s their problem. It’s their decision’, says Mulunda. ‘Are we supposed to change [every] time something changes outside?’
While the DRC may be staunch in its attitude, Stephens believes the ramifications of the Dobbs judgment will continue to play out for some time. However, international law requiring that abortion be available in certain circumstances is ‘pretty straightforward’, he explains. Limited access forces women into clandestine abortions while having a ‘stigmatising impact which deprives women of privacy and self-determination and autonomy of decision making’, he says. This, he adds, offends against women’s equal status. ‘It’s those kinds of issues where essentially international law is going in one direction, but political expediency and policy is going in another direction.’
Press and Activists Gather Outside the US Supreme Court While the High Court Hears Arguments on the Texas Abortion Law, Washington, DC, USA , November 2021. JudithAnne/AdobeStock.com