The international consequences of the US's domestic shift towards restricting women’s right to abortions

In the June edition of CFFP’s Feminist Lens on Current Affairs, we reflect on the increasing moves to restrict or remove women’s rights to abortion in many federal US-states and discuss what implications these changes have for women’s rights across the globe.

The Issue

From Alabama to Missouri and Ohio: Over the last two months, an increasing number of US states have passed bills that restrict and/or remove a woman’s right to legal and safe abortions – despite the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalises abortion within the first three months of a pregnancy. Between January and May 2019, 27 abortion bans have been enacted as well as 479 abortion restrictions, which represents ‘more than a third of the 1,271 abortion restrictions enacted since Roe v Wade became federal law’. These developments seriously endanger US-American women.

Over the past 25 years, Republican administrations have widely refused to provide funding for international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which provide reproductive health services or education. The move by the Trump administration to restrict reproductive rights comes as no surprise then. However, the Trump administration has taken this to a new level: Since President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, his administration has continuously worked to limit and roll back women’s rights, to challenge international progressive norms, and to promote conservative and patriarchal agendas – in particular, those related to women’s rights to sexual and reproductive autonomy. Much of the administration’s efforts in doing so have been directed toward the UN. At the end of 2018, new State Department Directives were issued to US diplomats to scale back support on reproductive health programmes and introducing new red lines on the issue. This is particularly worrisome as it marks a new wave of institutionalising conservative norms within international legal and policy instruments, which until now, have not been institutionalised on an international level - despite its prevalence in domestic contexts and despite the fact that women’s right have always been contested, including within the UN and among UN member states.

Alongside an analysis of the global influence of US policy, it is important to acknowledge that its approach towards abortion speaks to a growing trend seen around the world. The restriction of women’s reproductive rights as an international policy is a creeping phenomenon attached to the rise and power of right-wing populist and conservative governments. From Poland to Hungary, Brazil and Italy, we see heads of states embody a ‘strongman’- mentality, promoting ‘traditional’ family values and gender roles, openly rejecting feminism and reversing policies aimed at increasing gender equality. Indeed, while especially in Europe the right-wing parties struggle to find a common position on many issues such as the climate crisis and fiscal policies, all of them are united in their stand to restrict women’s (reproductive) rights. It becomes more and more obvious how the rise of global populism is manifesting itself in patriarchal and misogynist policies – on the national and the international level.

The Case of the US

When reflecting upon the global impact of the US’s position on reproductive rights, one needs to go back to 1984, when US President Ronald Reagan introduced the ‘Mexico City Policy’, also known as the ‘Global Gag Rule’. This policy blocks US funding for NGOs which ‘provide abortion counselling or referrals, advocate to decriminalise abortion, or expand abortion services’ – even if the NGO is implementing these activities with their own funds. If an organisation wants any piece of US funds, they must abide by the Global Gag Rule, which only allows NGO’s to give advice, a referral, or ultimately perform an abortion if the pregnancy causes a severe risk for the mother’s life or if the pregnancy was a result of incest or rape. This policy has since been revoked by every Democratic President and re-instated by every Republican President.

The Global Gag Rule had an original intent of blocking abortion access, however President George W. Bush expanded the policy to include all forms of voluntary family planning. Consequently, organisations engaging in any work relating to family planning are hard pressed to provide necessary care. NGOs are forced to either provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health service and education without financial assistance from the US, or, to continue to be eligible for US funding, abide by the US’s strict regulations for health services.

A Global Impact

In an attempt to better support survivors of sexualised violence in conflict and to hold perpetrators of these crimes accountable, the German government – currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) – introduced resolution 2467 into the UN Security in late April. The resolution, which became the 9th resolution of the so-called Women, Peace and Security-Agenda was adopted by the UNSC on 23 April 2019 with two abstentions by China and Russia. Its final form differed strongly from the original draft as the US insisted on removing any reference to ‘the need for U.N. bodies and donors to give timely sexual and reproductive health assistance to survivors of sexual violence in conflict.’ Ultimately, and much to the disappointment of feminist and women’s rights organisations, UNSC and Germany gave in to the US’s demands. This was particularly disappointing as the US threatened to use a veto against language that had already been agreed upon by the UNSC in 2013 when it unanimously passed the 6th resolution under the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. By threatening to use its veto power, the Trump administration categorically denied women and girls the right to reproductive health services at times of great vulnerability with high risks of violence.

This was not the first time President Trump has undermined the international women’s rights agenda. Since his inauguration, President Trump has actively refused to agree to any UN documents on sexual and reproduction health on the grounds that such language implies support for abortion. In mid-May the US pressured other G7 countries to remove any reference of women having the rights ‘to control and decide freely and responsibly on all matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health’ from the Declaration on Gender Equality by the G7. In November 2017, at meetings of the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, the US-Administration ‘sought to replace condemnation of ‘all forms of violence’ against women and children with the phrase ‘unlawful violence’, implying there may be lawful forms of violence’.

In addition to using its political power to alter and remove language in official and international documents, the US is supporting and empowering non-governmental actors pursuing similar goals. In 2017, the US included the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam), an NGO opposed to reproductive choice and to the rights of queer rights, in its official delegation to 2017 UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

These examples demonstrate how the Trump administration’s opposition to the broader women’s rights agenda have already had serious impacts on the situation of women across the globe. While we have seen an unusual coalition of countries and organisations unite in their opposition to reproductive rights, such as the US joining forces with the post-soviet states, the Holy See, and the League of Arab Nations. With the number of right-wing populist governments growing, we should expect efforts to restrict women’s rights to become stronger.

Limited reproductive health services have always taken a heavy toll on women and girls across the globe. Each day, over 800 women die because of preventable and/or treatable causes related to pregnancy or birth. Major complications that account for 75% of all maternal deaths include severe bleeding, infection, high-blood pressure and unsafe abortion. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. In addition to life-threatening physical and mental health consequences, limited access to reproductive health often acts as a catalyst to further fortify women’s vulnerability and economic instability. Girls are forced to drop out of school due to unexpected pregnancies, and pregnancy can lead to forced marriage or social stigmatisation. In short, lacking or limited access to reproductive health reinforces the structural discrimination of women and girls. As Valeria Hudson puts it ‘our world is bleeding women and girls’ – lacking reproductive health service is one of the reasons.


by Nina Bernarding and Jess Cheung


Marissa Conway