It has taken anti-abortion campaigners a concerted five-decade campaign to get here: the supreme court’s provisional decision to overturn Roe v Wade. More than half of America’s women can expect to live in states where abortion is banned or greatly restricted if, as anticipated, next month’s ruling is largely unchanged. Yet that will not mark the climactic triumph of the anti-abortion lobby. In their eyes, it is merely a staging post to further restrictions on other matters too, affecting more people – including outside the US.
First, they will not be satisfied with pre-Roe laws or even the trigger laws waiting for Roe v Wade to fall. There will be a new drive to remove exemptions from bans, such as for rape and incest. While many state laws have so far targeted providers, we can expect increasing attempts to criminalise women who have abortions – or are suspected of having done so. Louisiana already has a trigger law in place to ban abortion after six weeks; on Wednesday, a House committee voted for a bill that would make abortion a homicide and allow women to be charged for obtaining one.
Strikingly, the bill would also change the state’s legal definition of a person from a fertilised egg implanted in the womb to simply a fertilised egg. That points to a second issue: activists are already beginning to target forms of birth control, such as emergency contraception and some intrauterine devices that can stop fertilised eggs from being implanted, by wrongly framing them as abortifacients. Third, the draft opinion drives a bulldozer through the foundations of other rights similarly rooted in privacy protections, such as LGBTQ+ rights; even if it adds that abortion is unique because it concerns life or potential life, those all become more vulnerable.
Finally, this is not just about the symbolic power of overturning abortion protections in the world’s superpower. US anti-abortion groups have long been spreading their message abroad, through direct activism and funding. They have coordinated and poured millions of dollars into campaigns for restricting abortion in Latin America. Africa has been another prime target. According to openDemocracy, US Christian organisations have spent at least $280m of “dark money” supporting campaigns to restrict abortion and LGBTQ+ rights internationally. Bans kill. Almost all unsafe abortions and related deaths occur in Africa, Latin America and south and west Asia.
Globally, the trend has overwhelmingly been for abortion liberalisation: about 50 countries have relaxed laws in the last two and a half decades, with only a handful increasing restrictions. US funding played a part in the near-total ban on abortion that came into force in Poland last year. There, as in the US, the right has captured state institutions; the public opposed further restrictions. In both places, the anti-abortion lobby took root and found victory in specific conditions.
Not everything is transplantable. The American groups that funded the anti-abortion lobby in Ireland were repaid with a landslide vote for legalisation. But the rise of misogynistic rightwing populism in many places, and attempts to inflame culture wars in the UK and elsewhere by Donald Trump’s admirers, remind us that there is no room for complacency; 50 years ago, few US evangelicals saw abortion as an issue. The supreme court draft decision has given anti-abortion campaigners new momentum. Their targets and actions must now be monitored closely by opponents outside the US as well as within.