The protection of reproductive rights in the United States appears to be in free fall. In the past few weeks, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi all voted to introduce so-called ’heartbeat bills’, banning abortion six weeks after a pregnant person’s last menstrual period. On May 14, Alabama dropped all pretense and voted to ban abortion entirely, except in cases of a threat to a pregnant person’s life or a lethal fetal anomaly (though with no exceptions for rape or incest). All of these bills aim at the same target: ending abortion rights in America.
This is no longer a distant nightmare scenario. Several key figures involved with getting these votes passed have stated that they hope to spark legal challenges in lower courts that can eventually accumulate to overthrow Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that classified the right to choose to have an abortion as “fundamental” throughout the US. After Donald Trump’s appointment of two conservative justices to the Supreme Court, this seems more possible than ever.
Many of us in Europe watch the news coming from states like Alabama with a sense of bewilderment, feeling assured that such laws could never be passed here. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.
On both sides of the pond, powerful ultra-conservative organisations are mobilising to roll back human rights for sexual and reproductive health. In fact, no matter where in the world you go, you will often find the same white old men gathered around conference tables and keynote podiums, discussing the best methods of bringing about legislative change in favour of their reactionary agenda. Those who wish to end the right to a safe, legal abortion want to do so everywhere, with little regard for national boundaries.
Last year, the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development published a report revealing extensive networks between North American and European ultra-conservative campaigners. Funders and supporters for these groups include Vatican surrogates, Russian oligarchs, and a wide range of corrupt politicians ranging from Mexico to the UK.
However, America’s religious right has proven to be a particularly reliable source of cash. Religious legal powerhouses such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the American Center for Law and Justice, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association have together spent at least $50million on campaigns and advocacy in Europe over the past decade, including a network of ‘grassroots’ anti-abortion campaigns in Italy and Spain. These are the same organisations that have been involved in drafting and advocating for the ‘heartbeart bills’ in states like Ohio.
Crucially, these campaigners are not taking a piecemeal approach to their crusade. While abortion remains one of their highest priorities, these groups also target the right to divorce, access to contraception, assisted reproduction technology, and equal rights for LGBTQ+ individuals. Overturning these rights is seen as as a holistic policy agenda - opening up ‘the debate’ in one area is seen as helpful to making gains in another.
At the World Congress of Families in Budapest in 2017, speakers emphasized the importance of changing the conversation around conservative campaigns by appropriating the language of human rights. The real victims, they want to argue, are conservative voices whose religious freedom and freedom of speech are threatened by the very existence of legal reproductive rights.
Fortunately for these ‘victims’, world governments are becoming increasingly eager to accommodate them. The 2017 World Congress of Families was hosted by the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, while this year’s WCF lineup featured Italy’s deputy prime minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini. The Trump administration’s Global Gag Rule prohibiting US foreign aid money from going to organisations that provide abortion services or information on reproductive rights. Last month, the US succeeded in watering down the UN’s resolution on combating rape as a weapon of war by removing all references to sexual and reproductive health. The recent string of abortion bans in the US must be understood in this global context, where far right forces are enjoying more and more influence in institutions of power.
We must also remember that reproductive rights have always stood on fragile ground, even in the UK. None of this comes as a surprise for anyone living in Northern Ireland. Northern Irish abortion laws are in fact even stricter than the new ban in Alabama: thanks to the Offences Against the Persons Act from 1861, anyone procuring an abortion in Northern Ireland can face life imprisonment. People seeking to have an abortion are forced to travel to other parts of the UK, facing severe financial and psychological barriers.
Support for these draconian laws are maintained just in the same way as in the US: through networks of fundamentalist Christian groups in alliance with well-funded politicians. Likewise, the results of these laws are identical. Wherever safe and legal abortions are not allowed, abortions still happen, but more women die.
As the global outcry over Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama grows louder, we must not forget that women and LGBTQ+ face the same challenges in the UK and throughout Europe. More importantly, those of us who want to fight for reproductive rights must unite globally in the same way as conservative campaigners have already done. We must pull the curtain on their talking points and dog whistles no matter where they appear and what language they speak.
Civil rights groups in the affected US states, such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, have already begun to mount legal challenges to the new abortion bans. European activists must maintain active support to these efforts and learn from the battles to come.
If you would like to support these efforts, here is a list of organisations in the US that could use your donation right now. If you would like to support people travelling to the UK to have a safe and legal abortion, the Abortion Support Network provides advice for people resident in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Malta and Gibraltar.