August 27, 2018

Truth is Truth: U.S. Abortion Law In The Global Context


By Risa E. Kaufman & Martha F. Davis

The looming U.S. Supreme Court confirmation fight crystalizes the current battle lines over reproductive rights. For years, abortion opponents have been busy proposing and enacting new federal and state restrictions on abortion access, teeing up the opportunity for the Court to revisit the fundamental right to abortion and the robust constitutional framework protecting core personal liberty interests.

False and misleading information has been a key part of the anti-abortion toolkit. In attacking women’s reproductive rights, abortion opponents increasingly characterize laws regarding abortion access in the United States as far more permissive than the rest of the world. For support, they point to a rudimentary global tally of national laws on abortion and urge policymakers to enact bans and further restrictions on abortion access in order to bring the United States more in step with “international norms” on abortion access.

Our newly published Issue Brief exposes the fundamental flaws in this argument, explaining that international norms on abortion access cannot be portrayed through such nose counting. Abortion opponents’ uncritical reliance on a simplified scorecard is misleading, inaccurate, and ignores important protections for women’s health. Indeed, the abortion opponents’ simplified global tally fails to account for broad exceptions contained in many European abortion laws. And it fails to examine the broader context of access to reproductive health care, including access to contraception, maternal health care, and access to medical information.

For example, the global tally counts Germany as having more restrictive abortion access than the U.S. Yet Germany’s reproductive health laws provide more support for women seeking to avoid or end unintended pregnancies. Unlike the U.S., Germany offers citizens and permanent residents universal health insurance, and provides health care for refugees and undocumented immigrants who are acutely ill, in pain, or pregnant. Germany also subsidizes contraception for women under 20 years of age, and in many instances provides public funding for abortion.

In comparison, as a result of abortion opponents’ efforts, abortion laws adopted by U.S. states are typically part of a larger web of measures to obstruct access to reproductive health care. States such as Texas are making a concerted effort to limit access to abortions, essential family planning services, and other reproductive health care, and refuse to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education.

The misleading global tally ignores the international trend toward liberalization of abortion law, as well. Around the world, there is an irrefutable trend toward expanding the grounds under which abortion is legal.

And the abortion opponents’ global tally ignores the fact that international human rights law recognizes and protects access to safe and legal abortion. International human rights treaties, agreements, and decisions reflect an international norm of liberalizing access to abortion and ensuring access to safe abortion care as central to ensuring women’s autonomy and reproductive health.

International comparisons are most certainly relevant touchstones for domestic policy-making and adjudication, but they are not as simple as checking a box. Accurate analyses examine access to abortion care in light of global practices as well as international human rights law and provide the basis for a more accurate and reliable comparison between the U.S. and its international counterparts.

In an environment where the very existence of truth is questioned and false statements are increasingly pawned off as true, abortion opponents in the United States are using misleading comparative data to undermine women’s fundamental rights and erode the robust constitutional framework that protects abortion access in the United States.

The stakes could not be higher.

Read the Issue Brief here.