The U.S. Can’t Be a Global Leader on Democracy While Banning Abortion at Home

We must recognize the numerous links between democracy and reproductive rights.

Supporters with Ultraviolet and All* Above All outside the Supreme Court the night before oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. (Instagram)

Last month, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in a case that could set off a new era of abortion bans across much of the country. It also marked the start of President Biden’s Democracy Summit, a high-level conference bringing together world leaders, civil society and the private sector to discuss challenges and opportunities facing democracy internationally. One of the stated themes of this first of two planned summits is a focus on human rights.

The proximity of these two moments is more than mere coincidence. Yes, the U.S. faces an unprecedented crisis for the right to abortion. But we must also recognize the numerous links between democracy and reproductive rights. A most basic and fundamental freedom in a democracy is the ability to control decision-making around one’s own reproduction. When this freedom is removed, it threatens the ability of half of the country’s population to participate equally in society. So, if the U.S. hopes to credibly host a marquee event to promote its return to global democratic leadership, it must contend with cracks in that facade here at home.

If the U.S. hopes to credibly host a marquee event to promote its return to global democratic leadership, it must contend with cracks in that facade here at home.

The recent Supreme Court cases out of Texas and Mississippi are a key example. They involve some of most extreme abortion bans in U.S. history—banning abortion at six and 15 weeks respectively (the former a cut-off before many even realize they are pregnant).

As we wrote in a brief in the Mississippi case with Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch, abortion bans are inconsistent with international human rights protections and a worldwide trend toward expanding access for abortion care. They also place the U.S. in direct violation of its human rights obligations. The U.S. has ratified several human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and must comply with their terms. Access to abortion is protected under a myriad of rights under these treaties, including the right to life, the right to non-discrimination, the right to privacy and the right to be free from torture.

Abortion bans are inconsistent with international human rights protections. They also place the U.S. in direct violation of its human rights obligations.

U.S. disregard for these internationally-recognized human rights far predates Texas and Mississippi’s abortion bans. For decades, its global restrictions on abortion have not only deprived countless pregnant people of their right to necessary healthcare—they have disrupted core democratic freedoms such as free speech. Policies like the Helms and Siljander Amendments, as well as the global gag rule, impact the ability of individuals to participate in political life by shutting down free speech and democratic conversation about abortion around the world.

The foundation of the U.S. approach to human rights is American exceptionalism—the idea that our Constitution affords us the most protections. But where has that left the status of fundamental rights such as reproductive freedom here in the U.S.?

An abortion rights march in Austin, Texas, in July 2013. (mirsasha / Flickr)

Fortunately, President Biden has the power to improve the United States’ credibility on human rights. Early in 2021, the Global Justice Center and over 140 other organizations signed a letter to the president calling for executive and administrative action to implement U.S. human rights obligations on sexual and reproductive health and rights. As an example, President Biden could take executive action and issue guidance from relevant agencies clarifying that under the Helms Amendment U.S. foreign assistance funds can be used to support abortion care provided in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment of the pregnant person.

Constructive U.S. engagement on human rights has the potential for broad impact—not only to shore up protections for Americans domestically, but also to bolster the perception of human rights globally. As Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, recently said, “We have this joke among us that when the U.S. sneezes the rest of the world catches a [cold]. … We know that politically that what happens in the United States …does have an impact in precedents elsewhere in the world.”

In her remarks at the Democracy Summit, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “We are working to defend equal rights, including reproductive rights, which are at grave risk here in the United States.” While such acknowledgement is a welcome step, there is far more the U.S. could do to live up to its promises.

Before its next Democracy Summit, the Biden administration should make a real commitment to ending all anti-abortion policies that cause the U.S. to fall short of its democratic aspirations.

Up next:


Elena Sarver is a legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, where she works to ensure legal protection for sexual and reproductive rights and accountability for sexual and gender-based violence.