As the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion, here’s a look at abortion rights and access around the world.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, many states will respond by outlawing abortion or passing new restrictions on abortion. And as closely as Americans will be watching, the rest of the world will be, too. The debate over abortion rights is, of course, not only an American debate. Several countries have changed their abortion laws recently in Europe, in Latin America. So we are going to devote these next few minutes to digging in on what factors may be unique to America and what parts resonate overseas to exploring why the possibility that Roe could be struck down is generating so much attention beyond our borders.
To do that, I am joined by three NPR colleagues – U.S. political correspondent Mara Liasson, also Rob Schmitz in Berlin and Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro. Welcome, you three.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hello.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Thank you.
KELLY: Phil, you start because I gather in Brazil, people are watching this really closely. What has been the reaction there to the U.S. debate?
REEVES: There is indeed a great deal of interest in this. There’s an election in Brazil in five months’ time. Jair Bolsonaro, the current president, is running for a second term. He’s far-right wing. He’s seen as an authoritarian in the making, and he is a staunch opponent of abortion. The interest around this issue that’s being generated in the U.S. is something that he’s harnessing.
On this issue, many Brazilians agree with him. It’s a criminal offense. Abortion is a criminal offense here in Brazil. It’s only allowed in certain specific circumstances – for example, when a pregnancy is a result of rape or the mother’s life is threatened. And polls suggest that most Brazilians want the law to stay that way. So throwing a spotlight at this time on this highly emotive, highly polarizing issue helps Bolsonaro at a time that he’s trailing in the polls.
And there’s another thing – he’s already put two conservative judges on Brazil’s Supreme Court. Campaigners for abortion rights say that if he wins a second term, he’ll be able to appoint two more, making it harder for future governments to bring change.
KELLY: Putting conservative justices on the Supreme Court – this sounds very familiar to Americans watching. Rob Schmitz, hop in here. You cover Germany, but I actually want to start your next door in Poland, which you also cover, because Poland stands out in Europe for very tight abortion restrictions. Explain.
SCHMITZ: Yeah, it does. You know, first off, Poland, like Bolsonaro’s Brazil, is very Catholic, and it’s chipped away at its democratic institutions in recent years. The right-wing nationalist ruling party called Law and Justice has a symbiotic relationship with the Catholic Church, and their voting base are largely churchgoing rural Poles who are very much against abortion.
In its seven years in power, the Law and Justice Party has dismantled the country’s judiciary and stacked Poland’s courts with party loyalists who bring this conservative Catholic right-wing agenda with them to the bench. And with their help, the party has essentially banned abortion. Just like in Brazil, the only scenario when a woman is able to have an abortion in Poland is if she can prove that she’s been raped or if the birth will threaten her own life. Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal court limited abortion to just these two scenarios in late 2020, and that prompted the largest protests in Poland, in mostly urban Poland, since those that led to the fall of communism decades ago.
KELLY: You know, it’s so interesting, Mara Liasson, listening to this here in the states because the U.S. appears to be poised to strike down federal legal protection for abortion while Joe Biden, who supports abortion rights, is in the White House, while his fellow Democrats, who largely support abortion rights, control Congress and while American public opinion is with them. A majority of Americans say they want Roe v. Wade to stand. How did we get here?
LIASSON: Well, the simple answer is that we have a very large anti-abortion rights conservative majority on the Supreme Court. And the reason we have that is because we have a system in America where the candidate with the most votes doesn’t always become the president. And 5 of the 6 conservative justices on the court were nominated by presidents who came into the White House without a majority of votes – Donald Trump and George W. Bush. And in several cases, these justices were confirmed by a majority of senators, but those senators represent a minority of voters because the Senate is also a minoritarian institution, which gives an advantage to small population rural states.
Just for example, right now, we have a 50/50 Senate. The 50 Democrats represent 44 million more voters than the 50 Republicans. And our founders designed a system to protect minority party rights, but I don’t think they could have imagined that it would get this out of whack.
But you’re right. Majority public opinion on abortion has been static in the United States for many decades. People support legal abortion with restrictions. The majority wants abortion to be safe, legal and rare.
KELLY: Rob, back to Europe – and broaden out from Poland because Poland is quite different from Western Europe, where abortion is legal in most places.
SCHMITZ: That’s right. Abortion is legal across nearly all of Europe. You know, each country has a range of restrictions based on how many weeks of pregnancy before the termination is illegal. And several countries require waiting periods as well as parental consent in the case of pregnant minors. But for nearly all of Europe, abortion remains legal, and there are only a handful of countries like Poland that have nearly banned it.
KELLY: Phil, what about the rest of Latin America? I mean, there has been movement in other countries to change laws to make abortion more accessible. Bring us up to speed on what is happening in Colombia, in Argentina, in Chile.
REEVES: Well, there’ve been some radical changes in these countries – changes that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Colombia’s constitutional court this year legalized abortion within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. And in late 2020, Argentina’s Congress voted to legalize in the first 14 weeks. And in Chile, which had a total ban on abortion until 2017, abortion rights are now included in a new draft Constitution that’s being drawn up by a people’s assembly. That document must be approved by a mandatory popular vote, so we don’t know whether it’ll pass or not.
But these are radical changes. Many thousands of women’s rights activists, the so-called green wave groups in Latin America, campaigned for years, even decades, to bring about these changes. But now I’m seeing some of them expressing concerns that these developments in the U.S. will inspire anti-abortion groups, which are already very strong in their countries, to try even harder to reverse them.
KELLY: Let me bring us back and land on the situation here in the U.S. Mara, where do you see this going with the midterms, with national elections here coming up in just six months?
LIASSON: I think where it might have the biggest effect is in Senate races. Swing-state Republican Senate candidates are going to have new challenges. As long as Roe was the law of the land, they didn’t have to say whether they were for or against all of these new laws that Republican state legislators are talking about.
Some of them are trigger laws. They go into effect automatically. As soon as Roe is gone, some states will have no abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother, life of the mother. There are other laws proposed that would ban IUDs, that would give embryos the rights at the moment of fertilization. Even Mitch McConnell told USA Today this weekend that a national law banning abortion is a, quote, “possibility” if Republicans get power.
So I think the next big debate in America is going to be about which party can be painted as the extremists on this issue because America – majority of American voters favor a middle ground of legal abortion with restrictions. And that’s going to be the fight between the two parties.
KELLY: We’ve been speaking with NPR’s Mara Liasson in Washington, with Philip Reeves in Brazil and Rob Schmitz in Germany. Thank you.
REEVES: You’re welcome.
LIASSON: Thank you.
SCHMITZ: Thank you.
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