Colonizing Abortion: The Conflict Between Western Ideals and the Developing World

by: Emma Barrett

Abortion is health care. This, apparently, is not up for debate. On July 29th, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, introduced legislation to repeal the 1973 Helms Amendment, which prevents American tax dollars from subsidizing abortions abroad. Schakowsky’s Act, entitled the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act of 2020, asserts that it is racist for the United States to not provide abortions internationally. More specifically, it is racist for the United States to not subsidize abortions for “Black and brown people around the world.” Abortion, Schakowsky said in a press release, is a human right

Since the Supreme Court of the United States found a constitutional right to abortion in 1973, over 61 million legal abortions have taken place in America. While the 1977 Hyde Amendment prevents federal tax dollars from funding abortions except in cases of maternal life endangerment, rape, or incest, sixteen states go beyond these requirements, providing funding through Medicaid to cover all or most “medically necessary” abortions. In its 2018-2019 report, Planned Parenthood reported $616.8 million in revenue from taxpayer funding.

For abortion advocates, however, this government funding is not enough. It is not sufficient for Americans to fund abortions domestically–they must also do so abroad. But while Schakowsky and other House Democrats may argue that the Helms Amendment “harms women in developing countries” and “perpetuates[s] inequities and exacerbate[s] health disparities for Black and brown people,” many of the countries they are trying to assist do not share that view. In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a global study, in which it interviewed 40,117 respondents in 40 countries about their views on a variety of moral topics, including abortion. The survey revealed that in many developing countries with large populations of “Black and brown people,” such as Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and South Africa, 61-92% of the populations view abortion to be morally unacceptable. And, not only do the cultures reject abortion, but many African countries also either heavily restrict it or prohibit it completely

The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act of 2020 ignores this, reflecting blatant disregard of–and even condescension toward–these countries and their cultures. Many of the Act’s targets do not want abortion at their door in the first place; introducing permissive American attitudes toward abortion destroys the culture and rewrites the stories of the people there. Obianju Ekeocha, a Nigerian biomedical scientist and the author of Target Africa: Ideological Neocolonialism in the Twenty-First Century, decries actions such as these as Western neo-colonialism. In relationships between Western countries and developing countries, she says, it is the West that holds the majority of the power. The West is able to leverage money and aid to promote their own interests, which often include increased contraception and abortion access. The receiving countries must then weigh their culture and values against necessities, sometimes food and water. Ekeocha describes the West as seeing “the developing world as a cultural vacuum to be filled with their ideas, or fallow land to be cultivated with their ideologies.” Up until now, the American government, at least, has not participated in promoting abortion internationally to the same extent that many American-based organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have. The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act of 2020 threatens to change this.

This blindspot is surprising, considering that other members of the Pro-Choice Caucus have recently decried the imposition of Western values on native peoples. That is exactly, however, what the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act does. While the Pro-Choice Caucus favors a culture in which Americans shout their abortions, that is not an ideology that the recipients of American aid necessarily share. On the contrary, many African countries, such as Kenya, have affirmed that life begins at conception and Americans should respect that choice. The United States may identify itself as a model for developing countries, but it is not clear that developing countries want to adopt the model. In fact, maybe these countries have something to teach America about building a culture of life. 

Photo by Ban Yido on Unsplash