World Health Organisation warns Supreme Court’s abortion decision is a ‘setback’ that will cost lives

Ending legal care and criminalising providers will have far-reaching consequences, WHO director warns

'People will die': Women react after Supreme Court overturns the constitutional right to abortion

The US Supreme Court’s landmark decision to revoke the constitutional right to abortion care will cost lives, the director-general of the World Health Organisation has warned.

During a media briefing on 29 June, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus underscored the fact that criminalising abortion care will not end abortions but will instead drive “women and girls toward unsafe abortions” that may result in “complications, even death.”

He added that if safe abortions are made illegal, “then women will definitely resort to unsafe ways of doing it, and that means it could cost them their lives.”

“We hadn’t really expected this from the US,” he said, calling the decision from the nation’s high court “backwards” while the US government supports maternal healthcare programmes – including reproductive healthcare – in developing countries and elsewhere. “We had really hoped the US would lead on this issue.”

The 24 June decision in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation upheld a Mississippi law banning abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy while striking down the rulings in 1973’s Roe v Wade and its affirming ruling in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v Casey, ending half a century of protections for the right to an abortion.

The court’s conservative majority determined that individual states, not the US constitution, should determine whether abortion care is protected under the law. The decision triggered a wave of anti-abortion laws that make abortion illegal and criminalise care in states that enacted severe restrictions in the event that Roe would be overturned, and has opened the door for more restrictive anti-abortion legislation.

WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan said such bans on abortion care will merely drive “women into the hands of people who are there to exploit the situation, performing unsafe abortion and very often resulting in a huge amount of damage to their health and sometimes death.”

Judges in Louisiana, Texas and Utah have temporarily blocked so-called “trigger” laws as lawsuits from abortion rights advocates and providers play out in state courts. Lawsuits have been filed in Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, and Mississippi seeking similar relief.

Congressional Democrats and Joe Biden’s administration face immense pressure to race to protect abortion rights, despite months or years of warning about the fragility of the Roe ruling, and ensure patients and providers have access to care and will not face criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen states and Washington DC have laws that protect abortion rights, including explicit protections in state constitutions or laws allowing for abortion up to a certain point in pregnancy or throughout a pregnancy.

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