Abortion rights lawfare: politicization, activism, and backlash

Siri Gloppen (2022)

New blog post by Siri Gloppen


Abortion is central to politics across the globe in unprecedented ways. Abortion was key to President Bolsonaro’s election campaign ahead of the 2 October elections in Brazil; it has repeatedly brought people to the streets in Poland, Ireland, and across much of Latin America – in some cases resulting in more liberal laws – and it dominates the political and legal scene in the United States.

In series of international research projects, multidisciplinary LawTransform teams have investigated the diverse dynamics through which abortion is politicized and its diverse social, political and health consequences: Abortion Rights Lawfare in Latin America; Sexual and Reproductive Rights: Global Battles; and Political Determinants of Sexual and Reproductive Health in Africa.

A series of videos from the 2022 Bergen Exchanges on Law & Social Transformation discusses recent developments with regard to Abortion rights in Latin America and globally as well as the future of reproductive rights activism in a polarized environment.


Anti-abortion activists, are successfully mobilizing legislative bodies to introduce barriers to legal abortion.


Findings from the projects shows how central the law and legal strategies are to these battles, with actors on all sides learning tactics from each other within and across countries. Anti-abortion activists, are successfully mobilizing legislative bodies to introduce barriers to legal abortion and to introduce constitutional clauses protecting life from the moment of conception; and increasingly use courts to broaden rights of conscientious objection (thus rending abortion inaccessible even when legal), and to strike down established rights – as dramatically demonstrated when the Supreme Court in June 2022 overruled the famous 1973 Roe v Wade decision, thus taking away the federal protection of the right to have an abortion.

However, in longer perspective pro-abortion activists were those who first relied on courts to broaden access to abortion – not least in the US. More recently, landmark court victories have been won by pro-abortion activists in Colombia, where the Constitutional Court has repeatedly broadened access to abortion, and in February 2022 decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. But fears that winning in court might lead to backlash, has increasing turned pro-abortion activists to the legislative process and the streets in mobilizing for change, with Argentina and Ireland as the most spectacular cases. And where the political conditions are hostile, a strategy has been to go under the radar, working with health bureaucracies and medical professionals to use spaces within the law to change policies and practices on the ground.


In some cases, regulation of abortion, sex education, or gender-based violence protection is the focus, at other times it is homosexuality, or transgender identity, but the core logic is the same; the natural order and traditional national values must be restored and protected against “foreign” liberal influence.


While it is not new that abortion and other matters related to sexuality and reproduction are socially contested and subject to political debate, the widespread use of sexual and reproductive rights as an all-purpose political currency is a recent development. Anti-liberal populists, on the rise in many countries, have made rejection of “gender ideology” and SRHR a central theme, and effectively use this to mobilize voters, forge political alliances and build coalitions.  In some cases, regulation of abortion, sex education, or gender-based violence protection is the focus, at other times it is homosexuality, or transgender identity, but the core logic is the same; the natural order and traditional national values must be restored and protected against “foreign” liberal influence. This is in turn used as a pretext for branding activists (and researchers) as “foreign agents” and restricting access to foreign funding.  Ironically, “foreign influence”-accusations are themselves a transnational trend and the past decade has seen the emergence – or rather the coming into the open – of dense and effective anti-reproductive rights networks with global reach.

At the same time, reproductive rights have been at the core of the mobilization from the left across Latin America, and now before the mid-term elections in the United States. And pro-reproductive rights activists have successfully – through a range of different strategies – broadened access to abortion in countries such as Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Ireland, India, and Ethiopia.

The increasing politicization of abortion, and of sexual and reproductive rights more broadly, across the globe has radically changed conditions on the ground – for people in need of abortions, for service providers, for activist – and for their transnational allies, who face new challenges of how to advance the cause while reducing the risk of fueling political backlash and being a liability to local partners. How can the work to secure safe and legal abortions move forward in this new global political landscape? What are the best strategies for activists and donors to engage in? Is there something to be learned from the anti-abortion side? How to avoid triggering backlash dynamics? And how can research be of help?


Photo by: Juliana Jaramillo