Even the United Nations is fed up with the United States over abortion policy. A doctor with the UN office responsible for tracking human rights abuses told the Supreme Court to uphold the right to abortion in an amicus brief filed in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, a doctor with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose sole job is monitor and advocate for the “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” said overturning Roe v. Wade would have a “catastrophic” ripple effect across the globe.
“We have this joke among us that when the US sneezes the rest of the world catches a [cold],” Dr. Mofokeng said in an interview with The Guardian published Monday. “So we know that politically that what happens in the United States… does have an impact in precedents elsewhere in the world.”
Dr. Mofokeng’s “friend of the court” brief was filed in late September, along with a deluge of pro-abortion advocacy groups, athletes, sociologists, lawyers, professors and more. She told the newspaper that her brief could be filed “in any other court, in any other abortion case” around the world, but Dobbs (which will be argued in December) presents a pressing concern.
In Dobbs, lawyers defending an abortion ban after 15 weeks gestation in Mississippi asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutionality of Roe, the landmark 1973 law that guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion until fetal viability. This will be the first case dealing directly with the right to abortion at the Supreme Court since notoriously anti-abortion Justice Amy Coney-Barrett was confirmed. (Cases like U.S. v. Texas, Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson, and Cameron v. EMW Women’s Surgical Center are procedural in nature and not directly about the act of providing or right to an abortion.)
If Roe is overturned, it will have immediate horrific effects on pregnant people across the U.S. Twelve states have laws in place outlawing abortion if and when Roe is deemed unconstitutional, while another nine have pre-Roe laws banning abortion that were never overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute. But Dr. Mofokeng says the repercussions of overturning Roe will be felt worldwide. “It means that even those people who are conservative, who are anti-rights, in any country in the world, will actually now start referencing the US court as an example of jurisprudence that should be followed, and this is why this is so dangerous,” she told The Guardian.
The world looks to U.S. policy because we hold the purse strings. President Biden repealed Trump’s Mexico City Policy or the “global gag rule” in January, but has not repealed the Helms Amendment, which bans American aid from paying for abortions. (Think of it as the international sibling to the domestic Hyde Amendment.) Without this repeal, it’s not enough to change abortion policy worldwide as the U.S. is the largest donor to international women’s health programs.
The brief filed before the Supreme Court argues that denying abortion (an incredibly safe but time-sensitive procedure) puts pregnant people in a vulnerable position. “International human rights law increasingly recognizes that abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering which can constitute cruel and degrading treatment,” the brief states, echoing the landmark Turnaway Study.
Allowing Roe to fall would mean it’s even harder to liberalize American aid for abortion. “It means we have a risk of now having global jurisprudence – or at least influences in the global world – using jurisprudence that’s ill-informed. And that’s very dangerous,” said Mofokeng. “To undo the court’s decisions takes decades, sometimes a lifetime – and that’s why it’s dangerous.”