The day after the U.S. Supreme Court voided almost 50 years of constitutional protection for abortion, lawmakers in France, where abortion has been legal since 1975, proposed a law to enshrine the right in the French constitution.
“What happens elsewhere cannot happen in France,” a co-sponsor of the bill, Marie-Pierre Rixain, tweeted in French.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the June 24 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, was an “electroshock” whose reverberations are being felt around the world, according to lawyers interviewed by Law.com International.
Even though Dobbs and Roe applied only to U.S. law on U.S. soil, the decisions have led almost immediately to a global call to strengthen legal protections for reproductive rights, as well as heightened fears for the knock-on effects on civil rights, privacy rights, women’s health, and even local law.
Dobbs “quite understandably has troubled many on this side of the pond in relation to women’s rights and choices,” said Lincoln Tsang, a partner and head of Ropes & Gray’s European life sciences practice in London.
Running Counter to Global Trends
While abortion laws vary widely from country to country, lawyers around the world noted that in rolling back Roe, the U.S. was running counter to global trends toward more liberal abortion rights.
The trend is perhaps most visible in Latin America, a region with a history of harsh laws that have seen women jailed for miscarriages or allegedly terminating their pregnancies.
In February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court allowed abortions up to 24 weeks. That ruling followed the decriminalization of abortion by the Mexican Supreme Court in 2021, and the legalization in 2020 of abortion on demand in Argentina up until 14 weeks of gestation.
In Mexico, where many U.S. women are already seeking abortion care following restrictions in border states like Texas, the president of the nation’s Supreme Court tweets nearly daily in support of abortion rights and the need to empower women.
Arturo Zaldívar has called the ability to terminate pregnancy a “fundamental right” and described criminalization of abortion as “a profound social injustice” against women.
In Germany, on the same day the Dobbs decision was handed down, legislators voted to repeal a Nazi-era law forbidding doctors from providing information about abortion.
The timing of the vote was a coincidence—the issue had been building for years—but the repeal will raise awareness of abortion, according to Valentina Chiofalo, a lawyer and research associate and the chair of public law and European law at Freie Universität Berlin.
Johannes Eisenberg, a partner at the criminal defense firm Eisenberg König Schork in Berlin, said the 1933 law had led to a “culture of secrecy” around the medical service of abortion that should now be lifted.
The repeal could also, Chiofalo said, set the stage for a wider discussion of the fact that on paper at least, abortion remains illegal in Germany—though the law is rarely enforced. “No other crime is framed like that,” she said.
Germany’s evolution mirrors that of countries around the globe that have recently relaxed restrictions on abortion.
In Asia, the landscape includes Thailand, which voted just last year to allow abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy. Singapore was one of the first countries in the region to legalize abortion, in 1969—four years before Roe. Abortion is still illegal in Laos and the Philippines, among other countries in the region.
“The issue of a woman’s right to medical procedure; the autonomy of her body versus her life—this is subject to laws in many countries, including Singapore,” the city-state’s minister of home affairs and law, K Shanmugam, said in Parliament earlier this year. “But it gets difficult when the issue becomes politicized and if you tilt too far away from giving autonomy to a woman over her own body.”
Fears for the Future
Following the Dobbs decision, Zaldívar wrote that he had rarely felt so proud to serve on the Mexican high court: “All the rights for all the people. Until equality and dignity become the custom.” The message was accompanied by emojis of green and purple hearts in support of abortion and women, as well as by rainbow flags for LGBTQ+ rights.
His message encapsulates a growing fear around the world that Dobbs might encourage local actors to challenge other rights in addition to abortion—and that the challengers might even succeed.
In South Africa, where the right to abortion during the first three months of pregnancy has been enshrined in the constitution and in the law since 1996, lawyers said they feared Dobbs would encourage anti-abortion activism, which has resulted in at least two high court cases challenging the right.
Even though the challenges have been unsuccessful, South Africa is not “completely insulated from the overturning of Roe v. Wade, because I think we are going to face a lot of anti-abortion rhetoric and strategies,” said Cathi Albertyn, a law professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and South African research chair on equality, law and social justice.
Similar fears are brewing In France, where more than 400 lawyers have signed a petition from the Paris Bar in support of a constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights.
One reason for urgency, some signatories say, is the rise of Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Rally party, which mounted a strong challenge to President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection this year and just won 89 seats in the French Parliament—an all-time high.
Le Pen, a longstanding opponent of abortion rights, has said she might consider supporting a constitutional bill. “Why not?” she told Le Monde over the weekend, who then dismissed the need for the proposed amendment enshrining abortion rights in the constitution.
“This agitation does not seem justified to me,” she said. “We are not the United States and no party is planning to change our legislation.”
But supporters of the amendment disagree, insisting it is justified. “For those who say that women’s rights are not in question here, I would say that the extreme right will act as soon as it comes to power, and not just on abortion,” Valence Borgia, a co-founder of Medici Law, an arbitration boutique in Paris, told Law.com International.
The Dobbs decision, Borgia said, was “an electroshock that even the largest democracies need to pay attention to.”
Dobbs also has implications for funding nonprofits that support women’s health services in the developing world, according to the Indian firm Nishith Desai Associates.
“Roe v. Wade’s overturning has cast the path for the United States to remove government funding for overseas development programs that fund, support, and provide sexual and reproductive health services, including, but not limited to, abortion treatment, through subsequent court actions,” the firm said in a circular issued June 27.
“Such a change will force the Indian entities to look for funders or supporters who align with Indian liberal views on reproductive rights and specifically abortion-related laws,” it added.
Stephanie Musho, a partner at SM Law & Policy in Nairobi, Kenya, expressed a similar concern. A change in U.S. posture over abortion rights, she said, will certainly impede progress toward relaxing Kenyan laws, which allow abortions only in cases where the health or life of the mother or child are at risk. Kenya’s health care sector receives funding from U.S. NGOs and is therefore influenced by U.S. policy, she said.
Lawyers and Clients Speak Out. Law Firms, Not So Much
While lawyers around the world are making their views known through petitions, social media posts and other actions, law firms have so far proved more reticent to declare a position on Dobbs or its ramifications.
Many international firms headquartered in the U.K. declined to comment. Some firms said they were evaluating their positions and policies in light of the rapidly changing landscape of U.S. state laws.
Others, including Pinsent Masons and Slaughter and May, said they would not be commenting because they had no offices or staff in the U.S. Law firms in other countries, such as Canada, with few or no U.S. staff, have been similarly silent.
Clifford Chance, with more than 300 lawyers in the U.S. and offices in New York and Washington, said it would not make a statement but noted that many of its lawyers had signed the Call to Action petition in the U.S. that has garnered over 2,000 signatures to date.
The firm also forwarded a statement to Clifford Chance’s U.S. personnel from Evan Cohen, the firm’s New York-based regional managing partner. Cohen wrote that, for him, Dobbs was an issue of both freedom and racial justice, since its impact will fall disproportionately on “those who do not possess the resources to navigate the hurdles created” by state anti-abortion laws.
Caura Barszcz, co-founder and publisher of Juristes Associés, a legal market research and publishing concern in Paris, said that more statements were likely to come forward as the post-Dobbs picture comes into clearer focus for law firms and their clients.
“Many firms are still sorting out what this means for them,” Barszcz said.
Meanwhile, a growing number of global companies and executives in France, Canada, and elsewhere outside the U.S. is manifesting support for abortion rights on social media, in posts that often combine resolve for the future with sorrow for the present.
“How can a woman be prevented from having full control over her body?” Francis Barel, director of PayPal France, posted on LinkedIn along with a photo of the late Simone Veil, the lawyer and former French justice and health minister who successfully championed laws guaranteeing the right to contraception in 1974 and abortion in 1975.
“We are fortunate in France to have had a woman whose courage is now legendary,” the post continues. Veil “gave a very simple answer to the question of women’s right to their bodies: it is total. And that was almost 50 years ago.”
This story was reported by Anne Bagamery, James Carstensen, Jennigay Coetzer, Gail Cohen, Habiba Cullen-Jafar, Amy Guthrie and Jessica Seah.