Roe v. Wade: The US Supreme Court decision provokes shock waves in Geneva

The June 24 ruling by the US Supreme Court overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion across the United States sent shock waves through Geneva, opening a new and uncertain chapter in the highly polarized debate on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The decision was unanimously celebrated by members of governments, ambassadors, and allies of the Geneva Consensus Declaration (GCD), a group of 30 states established to restrict access to abortion and promote traditional family values. Members of the GCD are attempting to weed out references to abortion in international legal documents, in UN resolutions and other multilateral fora, and the group has thus always been extremely active in Geneva.

Supported by the Trump administration and his conservative Christian Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the GCD suffered an important setback when, in one of the first decisions of his presidency, Joe Biden decided to withdraw from the group.

Last week’s ruling by the US Supreme Court, however, was seen as a major game changer for the GCD. Valerie Huber, who served as the US special representative for Global Women’s Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration before founding the pro-life Institute for Women’s Health (IWH), is the group’s de facto coordinator. She immediately claimed that the decision should be considered a full validation of their positions, and that the ruling would have a major positive impact internationally.

“Abortion is not a fundamental human right internationally nor in the U.S.,” she tweeted after the Court’s decision, adding: “While this is a massive legal win for the pro-life movement in the U.S., this decision will have a significant effect throughout the world. Just as the IWH supports returning abortion legislative power to the 50 U.S. states, we also support the sovereign right of nation-states to determine their own laws regarding abortion without interference from the U.S. or other progressive allied nations.” Continuing, “we expect the Biden administration to continue imposing their radical abortion agenda across the globe,” she also insisted that the ruling “will empower nations to stand more firmly and confidently in their efforts to promote women’s health while defending life at every stage.”

Huber wasted no time in pushing her message in the US and abroad, and last week travelled to Brazil, where she was received by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. An abstinence-only activist, Huber is one of the most ideologically driven opponents of women’s reproductive rights, and was a central figure in shaping the language of the Geneva Consensus Declaration. In an op-ed written shortly before the Court’s expected decision, she directly attacked the World Health Organization (WHO), writing that the “organization was full of ideologues masquerading as experts.”


The reaction in New York and in Geneva was swift. Fearing that ultraconservative governments would step up their diplomatic efforts within the organization, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General pointed out that criminalizing abortions would not prevent them, but merely make them more deadly. “A staggering 45% of all abortions around the world are unsafe, making this a leading cause of maternal death,” a statement by the United Nations Population Fund read.

In Geneva, WHO insisted that access to safe abortion care was “essential” and that removing it would “put more women and girls at risk of illegal abortions and the consequent safety issues that would bring.” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself tweeted that he was “concerned and disappointed” by the US ruling. He said it reduced both “women’s rights and access to health care.”

In a statement, Michelle Bachelet said that the ruling “represents a major setback after five decades of protection for sexual and reproductive health and rights in the US through Roe v Wade. It is a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality,” she added.

According to her office, the access to safe, legal and effective abortion is “firmly rooted” in international human rights law, and is at the core of women’s and girls’ autonomy and ability to make their own choices about their bodies and lives, free of discrimination, violence and coercion—the very view that, with the help of conservative academics, the GCD opposes.

“If the Court chooses to consult international law in this case, it will find there is no treaty that recognizes a so-called human right to abortion, nor has such a right been established through customary law,” they claim, in an “Amici Curiae” brief to the Supreme Court:

“[… T]he practice across all regions demonstrates a consistent State prerogative to protect unborn life. Nor has any international court declared the existence of an international right to abortion, even in regions with the most permissive abortion regimes,” the authors of the brief argue, claiming that those governments or actors seeking to “invent a new right to abortion” commit a misinterpretation of key international instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Rome Statute, and the International Conference on Population and Development. “The clear language in those documents defies any attempt to repurpose them to create an international human right to abortion,” they write.

They underline that, to the contrary, provisions recognizing the unborn child as a rights-holder can be found in many international human rights instruments, including the American Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

According to the UN, more than 50 countries with previously restrictive laws have liberalized their abortion legislation over the past 25 years. For many hardline religious, populist and autocratic states, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Pakistan and South Sudan, the legal position taken by the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court offers new arguments to strengthen their position against those international agreements and treaties which have been negotiated over the years and are today legally binding.

- JC, with PHM