The impact of U.S.’s abortion policies on international diplomacy

By Hannah Proctor, Research Fellow, WIIS Global

August 29, 2019

Throughout 2019, conservative states in the U.S. have been adopting increasingly restrictive abortion laws in an effort to undermine, and eventually abolish, the Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed the right to abortion based on the right to privacy. These laws and the mindsets that accompany them have far-reaching consequences that go beyond U.S. borders.   

Historically, conservative U.S. administrations have relied on two main pieces of legislation to enforce their anti-abortion positions globally:

  • The Helms Amendment: bans federal funds from being used directly for abortions internationally.
  • The Global Gag Rule (Mexico City Policy): bans U.S. international aid, designated for family planning, from going to international NGOs that provide abortion services, counselling, or referrals, or that participate in pro-choice activism. The Trump Administration expanded the Global Gag Rule to apply to not only funds designated for family planning, but to all foreign health aid, affecting $9.5 billion.

The Trump Administration’s strengthening of the Global Gag Rule caused an international outcry and resulted in SheDecides. SheDecides was founded in 2017 by ministers in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden to raise awareness and funding for organizations impacted by Trump’s Global Gag Rule. This organization has raised funds totaling $453 million to “reduce the impact of regressive US policies.” The multilateral response among U.S. allies indicates that this U.S. policy has broad international consequences and violates established international norms.

While these donations are important, they do not counteract the loss of billions of dollars or the facilities forced to close as a result of the Global Gag Rule. The repercussions of these policies are not only monetary, they also affect international cooperation efforts within and outside of the UN.

 The UN considers abortion to be a human right and the criminalization of abortion to be a form of discrimination against women. The new U.S. stance on abortion has also had an effect on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda and discussions within the UN Security Council. 

For example, in April 2019, Germany introduced a new WPS Resolution to add a victim-centered approach to sexual violence in conflict. However, the resolution that was ultimately adopted (UNSCR 2467(2019)) was a much more watered-down version than the originally proposed language. This was a direct result of the Trump Administration’s efforts to impose its conservative and regressive stance on abortion. Throughout the drafting process, China, Russia, and the U.S. all threatened to use their veto power over accountability mechanisms. The U.S. subsequently threatened a second veto the day before the final vote over references to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

The U.S.’s actions throughout the drafting process demonstrate the increasing conservative stance of U.S. domestic and international policy. Additionally, by cooperating with China and Russia in this regard, this U.S. administrations’ actions are a “spurning of traditional allies in the West to side with countries known for human rights abuses [in order] to undercut women’s and gender rights.

In moving further to the right on issues like gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, the U.S. isolates itself from its closest allies, and weakens  international cooperative efforts as well as its role as a world leader. 

From a human rights perspective, the U.S.’s unwillingness to allow for or provide necessary healthcare puts already vulnerable women at further risk. A staunch anti-abortion approach meant that UNSCR 2467 removed all language of sexual and reproductive healthcare, which encompasses a wide variety of services. These services are important, not only for women’s health, but for gender equality more broadly.

As the U.S. moves away from its allies and from long-standing norms of gender rights and abortion rights, the U.S.’s international standing is jeopardized and many women abroad are put at risk. The U.S. is the world’s largest global health donor and, as such, should work to strengthen access to healthcare, not fight to impose a conservative interpretation of gender rights on the recipients of its donations.