With the US Supreme Court’s overturning the Roe v Wade decision, abortion rights are now up to individual US states. However, while there are no legal implications for the rest of the world, it will undoubtedly have a huge influence on other countries’ abortion campaigning and lawmaking decisions. Future anti-abortion efforts in the US may also impact the country’s funding of reproductive services in regions such as Africa.
Without access to legal, safe abortion, many pregnant people will turn to unsafe methods. According to the World Health Organization, 97% of all unsafe abortions happen in developing countries. Some 4.7–13.2% of maternal deaths are attributable to unsafe abortion.
Although Roe v Wade does not have a legal effect in Africa, it was frequently invoked in abortion. Tunisia liberalised its abortion law just nine months after the Roe v Wade ruling – allowing women to access the service on demand. Additionally, in 1986, Cape Verde allowed for abortion on request prior to 12 weeks gestation which aligns with Roe v Wade holding of the same.
In South Africa, the right to abortion is not directly enshrined in the Constitution, but the 1996 Choice in Termination of Pregnancy Act greatly widened accessibility to safe, legal abortions, causing a 90% drop in abortion mortality from 1994 to 2001. The previous apartheid-era laws and their enforcement were predictably stained by racism: abortion was limited to encourage white population growth while contraceptives were promoted to control the population growth of black and coloured people. Wealthy whites could fly to England for an abortion there if they could not arrange one. The 1996 Act was met with significant opposition on religious grounds, and it is speculated that had the ANC done this with an open vote, it would not have passed with such a wide margin.
Even today, research shows that abortion remains highly stigmatised among South Africans, with 75.4% of people surveyed indicating that it was “always wrong” in case of family poverty, and 52.5% indicating the same for either foetal abnormality or family poverty. Provincial splits are apparent, with Gauteng and Limpopo having a > 1 odds ratio of being against abortion.
The 2003 Maputo Protocol adopted by the African Union requires countries to authorise medical abortions in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, or where the health of the mother is endangered. This specific provision draws from the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), whose clause on access to safe abortion was based on on Roe v Wade. However, 12 AU members have not ratified the protocol, and many of those who did have not fully brought their laws into line. South Africa is only one of six African nations that effectively allow elective abortions. Of these, Mozambique and Benin only fully changed their laws in 2020 and 2021.
Abortion opponents led by the Catholic Church and its affiliates enjoy widespread political and social support in many African countries. In 2020, Bhekisisa investigated African pregnancy crisis centres funded by US anti-abortion groups. These centres actively discourage abortion, exerting pressure on girls and women and are rife with misinformation, such as grossly exaggerating the size and development of the foetus in early stages of pregnancy. One NGO offered training to say that abortion would “turn” women’s partners gay if they got an abortion.
Thus, while the legal outcome of Roe v Wade being overturned will have no bearing on South Africa, it will conceivably embolden anti-abortion groups both domestically and abroad and likely to increase the influence they already exert in the country.