We Must Not let Roe v. Wade Stall Progress Elsewhere
Sharanya Sekaram on the fear activists feel due to recent developments in the USA and the hope they must take from elsewhere.
I recall watching the passage of the 2018 Irish Referendum which decriminalized abortion and wondering what this could mean for women in my home country of Sri Lanka, who overwhelmingly lack abortion access. Today, the same questions are coming to the fore with the fate of Roe v. Wade in the United States. Wherever in this discussion one is positioned, the reality of the impact cannot be ignored nor denied. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it could lead to a rollback of abortion access in countries that have seen progress and even more extreme restrictions in countries like Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s abortion laws are among the strictest in the world, only allowing termination of pregnancy when the mother’s life is in danger. The penalty for causing a woman to miscarry (with or without her consent) is up to three years imprisonment and/or a fine. This leaves little choice for an estimated 700+ women daily (the majority of whom are married women with children) who resort to desperate methods including inserting barbed wire into themselves. We are held prisoner by patriarchal and religious structures, including the Roman Catholic Church's powerful influence in opposing any kind of reforms. Women and feminist groups have been joined by doctors in fighting for desperately needed reforms in 1995, 2012, and 2017, but any level of success is yet to be seen.
This situation starkly contrasts with many other countries (some of whom interestingly have a majority-Catholic population) that are changing their laws for the better. This includes Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and San Marino, which have taken concrete steps forward in the recent past to decriminalize abortion within their legal systems. I felt a glimmer of hope watching this heartening trend, hoping it suggested a light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who have been fighting.
Now, we are faced with the fear that the risk of Roe v. Wade being appealed will negatively impact this shift in global trends. This could severely impact countries like Sri Lanka from seeing any kind of progress in law reform in the near future.
How can a Supreme Court ruling affect a small island nation half a world away? To deny the potential impact of Roe v. Wade being overturned is to ignore the reality that many countries like ours look to U.S. law for guidance and rely on the U.S. for critical funding. While Roe v. Wade does not directly impact U.S. foreign policy, the outcome of the challenge will set the tone for the U.S.’s federal position on reproductive health.
The most significant impact could be experienced by those dependent on U.S. federal funding for programs that support access to safe abortions and other family planning needs. For example, it’s reported the U.S. contributed approximately US$700 million to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2020-2021. WHO is one of the world’s top abortion research and advocacy institutions and contributes significantly to abortion care in countries that need this support desperately. Worse, we could see funding for anti-abortion campaigns and activism overseas increase dramatically and further empower what is already a powerful influence in halting progress.
This concern is far from unfounded. I am reminded with painful clarity of what took place during the Trump Era “gag order” that banned U.S. aid from being used towards abortion procedures. The publication, “Crisis in care: year two impact of Trump's global gag rule,” published by the International Women's Health Coalition, details some of the direct effect of anti-abortion policies and their threat on the work of those supporting women and vulnerable groups.
As I write these words, I cannot forget that it will be the most marginalized and vulnerable of women who will face the most severe impacts. Class inequalities do not exist in a vacuum. How often have we been drowned out by moral aspect of this debate, dismissing the very real structural inequalities that impact this decision? I found as a younger activist this painful reality outlined in research that was carried out in two abortion clinics in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1997; showing that more than 90% of patients were married women, and one of the key reasons for needing an abortion was poverty. This is a continued reminder that the link between ease of access to termination and reasons women terminate in these precarious circumstances are linked to broader health and socio-economic inequalities. Choices are not choices when the alternative is starvation and death.
So, even while the global community can’t stop the seemingly inevitable ruling on Roe v. Wade, it can refuse to let the decision stall progress abroad. We must move beyond holding the U.S. as a standard for guidance on reproductive rights laws and set our own agenda. This ruling is not and should not be the last word on this subject, and we will fight to make sure it won't be.
Sharanya Sekaram is a Sri Lankan activist, researcher and author with Voice, a feminist organization dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence and supporting the rights of women and girls in the U.S. and around the world.
Photo by Duané Viljoen