June 30, 2022

What does the overturn of Roe v. Wade mean for international development?

Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade exposed tensions between people, communities and nations over the right and ability to access abortion. These tensions reverberated globally.

Issues of gender equality, planned parenthood and women’s health have always been central to international development programs. This week, we ask the experts to unpack the implications of what the decision means for U.S. funded development and communities in lower- and middle-income countries.

Dr Anu Mundkur
Co-Director, Equalis

To borrow from the former PM Julia Gillard, abortion has ‘become the political plaything of men who think they know better’. The overturning of Roe v. Wade spotlights the fragility of women’s fundamental human rights and the extent to which male power and privilege are entrenched in our social, political, economic and justice systems. It has implications beyond the U.S. 

We are seeing a rise of conservative governments, many driven by religious ideologies that have never been supportive of women’s rights. This is the news they have been waiting for – a bastion of democracy that has always portrayed itself as a defender of women’s rights to say the right to abortion is not a human right. For sure, this decision is going to influence how seriously some governments around the world consider the issue of abortion. 

Globally, we will see a political backlash against women’s rights defenders who have been fighting for sexual and reproductive health rights, as an emboldened international anti-choice movement will promote a rise in local anti-abortion movements and campaigns that call for limiting access to abortion. This ruling is also a setback for trans and nonbinary people seeking abortions. Should the Republicans come back into power, we will undoubtedly see a reinstatement of the Global Gag rule, which will impact women’s access to safe abortions in lower- and middle-income countries.

To guarantee gender justice, including the right to safe abortions, we need a reinvigorated intersectional gender justice movement that seeks political power and backs progressive politics globally.

Anu is a powerful advocate for women’s empowerment and gender equality. She is a seasoned professional in all things international development, with deep expertise in gender research, capacity development, women’s representation and policymaking in the Indo-Pacific. Anu’s diverse experience across the development and humanitarian sectors is highly valued at the Lab and we rely on her critical feminist thinking approach to guide gender-conscious development.

Dr Sarah McCosker
Partner, Lexbridge Lawyers

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade raises significant concerns from an international law perspective. Restricting the ability of women to control their own bodies and access safe reproductive healthcare implicates numerous rights enshrined in treaties to which the U.S. is a party – including rights to health, equality, non-discrimination and privacy. This is generating reverberations of alarm in the international community, with the decision denounced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN international human rights law experts, as ‘a monumental setback for the rule of law and for gender equality’. 

The U.S. executive government faces a difficult situation, where its longstanding positions on upholding international rights of women are placed at risk by the way U.S. states may respond to the Supreme Court judgment. International law requires the U.S. government to implement its treaty obligations in good faith. And a key tenet of treaty law is that a country cannot invoke the provisions of its domestic law to justify breaching its international obligations. This means that, notwithstanding the Court’s decision, the U.S. federal government ultimately will have international responsibility for any treaty violations of women’s rights that might occur as a consequence of the decision.

The key questions now are exactly what action states across the U.S. will take in response to the Court’s decision – and what remedial steps the federal government will take to try to preserve women’s access to reproductive healthcare, and uphold the U.S.’ international human rights obligations. The protection of human rights has fundamental interdependencies with international development and the effects of this decision will be felt by many.

Sarah is one of Australia’s finest legal minds. A former legal adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Sarah is an expert in international humanitarian law, international human rights law and the relationship between international law and diplomacy. At the Lab, we think Sarah is one of the most considered professionals we have met and we enjoy being able to connect Sarah’s international legal experience to current development challenges in the Indo-Pacific through our work and networks.

Madeleine Flint
Production Manager, Development Intelligence Lab

Technically, the fall of Roe v. Wade will have little impact on the foreign assistance budget of the U.S. But, the decision may be a catalyst for severe knock-on events that undermine gender equality and development. Why?

Trends in domestic U.S. politics reverberate throughout the region. The end of Roe gives licence to conservative leaders in low-middle income countries to walk back abortion access. Just as the ’73 Roe decision created an enabling environment to make the procedure safer and more widely available worldwide, last week’s decision gives the green light to reverse. It also undermines the U.S.’ credibility as a development partner on gender equity broadly. 

Roe decision aside, if a Republican administration returns in 2024 there will undoubtedly be another reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy (a policy on hiatus under Biden). This blocks the U.S. from using any of its $60.4 billion USD annual aid budget to fund development organisations that discuss or provide abortion. Withdrawing money from organisations that deliver family planning in low-middle income countries where the U.S. is a major donor, and creating further uncertainty, directly impacts women and has knock-on impacts for other healthcare provision like HIV/AIDS prevention, vaccinations, and malaria services. 

So, what can other donors do? First, invest in locally-led women’s health programs. Only those with deep cultural understanding can navigate social and political nuances in this space – and often provide information through savvy mechanisms donors would never know to design. Second, commit to longer funding cycles for women’s health providers. Facing impending funding cuts means solid backing needs to come from elsewhere. Third, make the rollbacks harder: support girls’ education targets; civil society advocacy activities; and show unequivocal political leadership. 

Australia considers itself a leader in gender equality in the development program – especially in reproductive health. Let’s use this momentum to prepare for what’s ahead.

Maddie is Production Manager of the Lab and the person behind The Intel. The team at the Lab love Maddie’s unique combination of research skill, design flair and content production know-how. Maddie’s known by her peers for her meticulous standards on quality and commitment to gender justice. She was the Lab’s first employee and is a friend to many in the Australian and Timor-Leste development communities. 

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