Losing Roe v. Wade Is a Matter of Global Significance

What does it represent to the rest of the world when the U.S. chooses to strip abortion rights away, just as so many other countries are granting them?

Demonstrators in defense of abortion rights outside the U.S. embassy on May 7 in London. (Hollie Adams / Getty Images)

We no longer need to await the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, officially expected this month. We all now know that the Supreme Court will likely nullify the fundamental right to choose abortion that Roe v. Wade established in 1973. 

It’s time to prepare for a post-Roe world. Those of us who work for global reproductive health and rights have a pretty clear vision of what a post-Roe world will look like, and it’s one of increased instability and suffering.

Healthcare practitioners around the world contend already with administration-by-administration reversals of the global gag rule, which acts like a floodgate for sums of U.S. international aid money. When the rule is in effect during Republican presidencies, local clinicians who offer safe abortion care are barred from receiving any U.S. foreign assistance for other healthcare services. Even when Democratic administrations repeal the rule and release funding, the chilling effect has already done damage—no clinic can effectively resource itself around the changing policies of the U.S. government. The unconscionable result is that domestic decisions about abortion in the U.S. dictate the availability of a host of critical healthcare services in other countries, including cancer treatment, anti-retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS, and maternal and newborn care.

No clinic can effectively resource itself around the changing policies of the U.S. government.

It’s a disparity that is likely only to worsen as restrictions on access to safe and legal abortion services cascade across half the country. And though we don’t expect most Americans to follow the international fallout of the decision, they should at least consider what it represents to the world when we choose to strip rights away from people in the U.S. just as so many other countries are granting them.

The reality is that many countries are doing the hard, necessary work of making access to safe abortion care easier. Mozambique, where Pathfinder has worked since 1997, decriminalized abortion in 2014. Ireland, where abortion was long forbidden on religious grounds, repealed its ban with overwhelming public support in 2018. Mexico, just last year, codified the unconstitutionality of penalizing abortion, seemingly in rebuttal to the Texas Heartbeat Act, upheld in December, which delegates anti-abortion law enforcement to the general public. Following Mexico and Argentina, Colombia decriminalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

If the U.S. chooses the path of regression, we will become only the fourth country in 28 years to restrict abortion rights. To have spent a career advocating for rights in other countries that soon won’t be available in our own boggles the mind as much as it breaks the heart.

Dobbs makes a direct challenge to the constitutionality of Roe’s reasoning on fetal viability; our Constitution makes no mention of such standards, argues the state of Mississippi, so neither should the courts. But don’t let the legal arguments distract you from the historic affront to basic decency at the core of the case: Mississippi’s law, like the Texas law before it, makes no exception for cases of rape or incest. Nor does it acknowledge one of the most practical aspects of the issue at hand: demand for safe abortion care—and the resources it requires—won’t simply disappear with Roe.

If the U.S. chooses the path of regression, we will become only the fourth country in 28 years to restrict abortion rights.

We know already, from many generations of evidence, that the absence of safe, legal abortion brings with it not the protection of life but its endangerment, and that the burden is distributed disproportionately among people of color and those with fewer resources.

Americans of all types will soon be crossing state lines in search of their lost rights, and it is the low-income patients who will have the most difficulty accessing them. The burden placed on pro-choice states to care for those citizens whom the anti-abortion states have cast aside may lead to a new breed of lawsuits, but that’s hardly a thing to hope for. Or it may be that in the wake of Roe’s demise, we will take inspiration from our global colleagues and muster, at long last, the collective resolve needed to craft a permanent legislative solution preserving the right to choose safe abortion—a much more worthy goal.

It’s possible that we’re approaching not an endpoint for our long-enshrined rights but a shock point, the turn of the curve that indicates a bigger, more durable correction is on the way. We can hope for that, and we will. But one thing is more immediately certain: Where we have tended to divide the United States artificially from the rest of the globe on issues of human rights, we can do so no longer. When Roe falls here, it will reverberate around the world. And as country after country laps us on the route to progress, that will reverberate here in turn.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About and

Crystal Lander is an experienced senior policy and development expert. She is currently chief strategic and engagement officer at Pathfinder International, where she leads global advocacy and communications and is a member of the organization’s Global Leadership Council.
Margot Fahnestock is a philanthropy and policy expert in family planning and reproductive health. She’s currently vice president of strategic development for Medicines360, which increases affordable access to reproductive health products. She serves on Pathfinder International’s President’s Council and her opinions expressed in this op-ed are her own and reflect her position on the President’s Council.