Communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.
14 Dec 2021
[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]
The US Supreme Court could be on the verge of one of the greatest rollbacks of abortion rights in the country in a generation. The court is considering whether to overturn its 50-year-old ruling which recognised a woman’s constitutional right to procure an abortion before the fetus gained “viability” at 24 weeks. Many US states are standing by with so-called “trigger laws” to ban abortion already on the books. However, the effect of the court’s ruling, when it comes next year, will probably be felt hardest outside the country.
Within the US itself, overturning the iconic 1973 Roe v Wade case would not end legal abortions – it would just leave it up to states to decide when abortions can occur. At least 17 states have already passed laws guaranteeing a woman’s right to abortion meaning access to such would be largely determined by where one lives. While such unequal access would undoubtedly harm women’s health, even there the effect might not be as severe. Even prior to Roe v Wade, official deaths from illegal abortions in the US had been falling, from 2,700 in 1930 to just under 200 by 1965, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think-tank. While these are just the official figures and the real numbers may be much higher, the trend is still undeniable.
Outside the US, the picture is significantly worse. Ninety-seven percent of unsafe abortions and related deaths occur in Africa, Latin America and southern and western Asia, according to Doctors Without Borders. In Kenya, unsafe abortions continue to be a leading cause of maternal morbidity and mortality with a 2002 study showing that 20,000 women annually sought medical care for abortion-related complications in public sector hospitals alone, with nearly 3,000 dying each year.
What, one may ask, does this have to do with the US Supreme Court ruling? The battle over abortion rights in the US is but one of the issues in the country’s so-called “culture wars”. The arena for those wars has been gradually widening to include much of the globe as both sides seek to impose their particular ideas on the rest of the world. An investigation by openDemocracy last year revealed that US Christian right-wing groups had spent at least $280m in “dark money” heightening campaigns against abortion and LGBTQ people across the world.
In Africa alone, more than 20 of these groups, which are known for fighting against access to safe abortion, contraceptives and comprehensive sexuality education, have spent at least $54m since 2007, making Africa only second to Europe as a focus of these groups expenditure abroad. The pernicious effect of these groups was made evident in Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill – which prescribed the death penalty for homosexuality, and prison terms for “promotion of homosexuality” and knowing a gay person and failing to report them. According to David Bahati, the Ugandan MP who sponsored it, the bill was the brainchild of a group of influential social conservatives, including politicians, known as The Fellowship, who directed it at Uganda because it was “too late” to propose such legislation in America. Tellingly, Bahati hoped for a Republican victory in 2016 to rescue his bill, and though he got his wish, the bill was unpalatable even to the Trump administration. (Earlier this year Uganda did pass legislation further criminalising same-sex relationships and sex work, arguing that Ugandans were not sufficiently “grown-up” to appreciate gay rights.)
The harmful effects of exporting US domestic culture wars can be seen in the disaster that is the so-called “war on drugs”. The US has been the primary driving force behind global prohibition efforts and has essentially sought to use international conventions to impose its own drug puritanism on the globe. The cost in lives has been paid by poor people in the Global South while the number of people using drugs appears largely unaffected. Similarly, studies around the globe have shown that criminalising abortion does not reduce the number of procedures – it does not save the unborn. A survey of 197 countries carried out by the Guttmacher Institute found that abortion occurs at roughly equal rates in regions where it is legal and regions where it is highly restricted. That means the main effect of abortion bans is to kill and maim women and girls by reducing the proportion of safe abortions.
Buoyed by a victory in the US Supreme Court, it is more than likely that US groups would redouble their efforts to spread abortion restrictions across the globe, with deadly consequences for women and girls everywhere. In Kenya, where nearly half of all pregnancies are unwanted, a further tightening of abortion restrictions, despite the ambiguous language in the constitution – which allows abortion to safeguard the life and health of the mother and when “permitted by any other written law” – could be catastrophic.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.