Doctors and pro-choice activists have condemned the overturning of Roe v Wade, describing it as an “unconscionable attack” that will leave the supreme court justices with “blood on their hands” and cause a global chilling effect on women’s rights.
In a statement signed by more than 100 global healthcare organisations, including the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), medics said the US supreme court’s move was “a catastrophic blow” to millions. The statement, also signed by the RCOG’s faculty of sexual and reproductive healthcare, warned: “It is a decision that will cost lives for years to come.”
Dr Edward Morris, president of the RCOG, said: “This decision is an unconscionable attack on the health and rights of women and girls in the United States … It is shocking to think that the future of so many women and girls has been dictated by politics rather than evidence-based opinion.”
Dr Ranee Thakar, president-elect of the RCOG, urged governments to support healthcare workers to provide women with safe abortions, rather than impose greater legal restraints.
“The chilling effect of the ruling will undoubtedly be felt around the world,” she said. “We call on governments to create and protect legal and regulatory environments that support healthcare professionals to provide access to safe and affordable abortion care.”
Ever since it became clear in May that the supreme court was preparing to strike down the 1973 legislation that effectively legalised abortion, pro-choice campaigners and medics have been warning that the ripple effect would be felt internationally – particularly in countries where abortion rights are fragile.
Concern is now mounting that the decision could embolden the anti-choice movement, increase pressure on healthcare workers performing abortions, and threaten hard-won gains in countries where stigma around terminations is still rampant.
Activists have said they are particularly worried about the impact in Central America, a region with a number of total abortion bans, and sub-Saharan Africa. But the message the court’s opinion sends – that legalising abortion had been “egregiously wrong from the start” – could find echoes almost everywhere, not least in the European anomalies Poland and Malta.
“The fallout from this calculated decision will also reverberate worldwide, emboldening other anti-abortion, anti-woman and anti-gender movements and impacting other reproductive freedoms,” said Dr Alvaro Bermejo, director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
“The justices who put their personal beliefs ahead of American will, precedent and law will soon have blood on their hands, and we are devastated for the millions of people who will suffer from this cruel judgment.”
Banchiamlack Dessalegn, MSI’s Africa director, said the decision could undermine the pro-choice movement’s efforts in countries across the continent. She said: “I am so proud of the steps the government in Ethiopia has taken to expand access to abortion over the last two decades; action that has saved countless lives and empowered women to take control of their futures.
“Both here and across Africa, US-linked groups have been trying for years to roll back this progress, with well-funded misinformation campaigns and by lobbying governments to restrict access. But we vow to protect choice. We are not going back.”
In a statement that did not directly refer to the supreme court decision, UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, said it feared in general that if women faced greater barriers to getting terminations, more unsafe abortions would occur, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
“Almost all unsafe abortions currently occur in developing countries, and UNFPA fears that more unsafe abortions will occur around the world if access to abortion becomes more restricted. Decisions reversing progress gained have a wider impact on the rights and choices of women and adolescents everywhere,” it said.
Dr Jeanne Conry, president of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), said the impact of the decision would be “felt on a global scale.”
“This decision undermines our commitment to advancing the rights of women and girls around the world, and is a threat to gender equality and the bodily autonomy of millions. The United States now is out of step with the rest of the world, and fails to take into account the overwhelming global medical evidence that supports abortion as essential health care,” she said.
Sarah Shaw, the head of advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices, said history had already shown that decisions made in Washington DC – such as the imposition of the global gag rule – could “have an impact far beyond [US] borders”.
Shaw added: “But while this vote may embolden the anti-choice movement around the world, it has also motivated the global community to reassert the right to choose.
“To anyone who wants to deny someone’s right to make decisions about what is right for their body and their future, our message is … We will never stop working towards a world where everyone, everywhere has the right to choose, and this attack only strengthens our resolve.”
Echoing her defiant spirit, Sara Pantuliano, chief executive of the ODI global affairs thinktank, wrote on Twitter: “Make no mistake, this ruling is a threat to everyone, everywhere. Solidarity with those in the US who will be faced with unimaginable decisions following this ruling, as they seek to protect their bodily autonomy.
“Let this be the fire to ignite our collective determination to prevent further backsliding. We must fight to ensure this trend does not gain any further momentum. We must draw a line by dealing in deeds not words.”
The decision sparked fury among many politicians in Britain, where Diana Johnson, Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sexual and reproductive health, urged Boris Johnson’s government “to stand in support of women in the US and condemn this decision”.
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, tweeted: “To every one of our American sisters, we are with you. We will not rest until your rights are restored as your fight is our fight. They won’t stop trying to control women and we won’t stop fighting for their freedom everywhere. None of us should live under his eye.”