How the Overturning of Roe Is Causing a Ripple Effect in Ethiopia

The Dobbs ruling has emboldened anti-choice groups worldwide—but it has also inspired the global community to reassert the right to choose.

Activists demonstrate after a 14-year-old girl died as a result of an unsafe secret abortion in Rabat, Morocco, on Sept. 28, 2022. (Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

Last month marked one year since Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion nationwide. The decision dealt a devastating blow to reproductive rights in the U.S.—but the fallout has reverberated far beyond U.S. borders.

In Ethiopia, where I am from, abortion has been legal under a broad range of circumstances for 18 years, empowering women to take control of their futures and saving countless lives. I am so proud of the steps the government in Ethiopia has taken to expand access to abortion over the last two decades. Still, since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S. last year, these gains are looking increasingly vulnerable.

Immediately after the Supreme Court decision, anti-choice groups in Ethiopia began calling the government to follow America’s lead and make abortion a crime. In previous years, these groups made sure that their presence was known. They organized marches, harassed women outside clinics, and spoke out in the media and churches, not just against abortion but contraception too. They were visible and vocal.

But since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that struck down Roe, their tactics have changed.

On the surface, at least, it seems like nothing is happening. But under the radar, anti-choice groups are seeding disinformation, targeting politicians, policymakers and providers.

Ethiopia liberalized its abortion law in 2005 on public health grounds, but today many health professionals who saw women dying from unsafe abortions have now retired, and the younger generation of providers has not had to witness the grim consequences on the same scale. With the seed of doubt around the need for abortion care planted in their minds by the anti-choice movement, some doctors and nurses in public clinics that were providing safe, legal abortion care are refusing services.

A woman in Harar, Ethiopia on May 4, 2023. In the country, abortion has been largely legal for the past 18 years—but since the fall of Roe in the U.S., global anti-choice groups are feeling emboldened. (Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Corbis via Getty Images)

Working for a sexual and reproductive health organization, I have seen with my own eyes the devastating consequences of restrictive laws. Evidence shows that abortions happen whether they are legal or not. The only difference is whether they are carried out safely.

Before 2005, gynecology wards in Ethiopia were filled with women who had resorted to desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies, from drinking bleach, to inserting sticks or broken glass. Women were left with life-long injuries, and unsafe abortion contributed to a third of all maternal deaths in the country. 

With the seed of doubt around the need for abortion care planted in their minds by the anti-choice movement, some doctors and nurses in public clinics that were providing safe, legal abortion care are refusing services.

Thanks to the leadership of the Ethiopian government, in liberalizing the abortion law coupled with a strong focus on expanding access to abortion and contraception, these scenes have become much less common and maternal mortality has significantly reduced. But I am worried about what the future holds.

We know that Dobbs has emboldened the anti-choice and more than likely given them a cash injection. They are more sophisticated, better organized and well-funded. In response, we also need greater investment to strengthen civil society, empower them to inform decision-makers and provide ongoing support to providers.

Anti-choice groups are also targeting sexual and reproductive healthcare more broadly by preventing young people from accessing vital information. We have even seen a U.S.-based anti-choice group opening an office in Addis Ababa and actively lobbying to keep comprehensive sex education off curriculums.

With a general election on the horizon in the U.S. next year, reproductive healthcare providers around the world are anxiously waiting to see who will be chosen. Suppose the U.S.’ next leader is in favor of restricting abortion access. In that case, there is likely to be a ripple effect that will further embolden anti-choice groups worldwide. There is too much at stake to allow that to happen.

But while this vote has emboldened the anti-choice movement around the world, it has also inspired the global community to reassert the right to choose. This is an autonomy issue. A public health issue. A human rights issue. To anyone who wants to deny someone’s right to decide what is right for their body and future, our message is, ‘We are not going back.’ We will never stop working towards a world where everyone, everywhere, has the right to choose.

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Abebe serves as country director at Marie Stopes' Ethiopia program. Before that he served several years as country director of MSI's Zimbabwe program, Population Services Zimbabwe. He has over 20 years of experience in community development and public healthcare programs, including maternal and child health, family planning and reproductive health, malaria prevention, and HIV/AIDS programming.