Opposition to reproductive and sexual rights is at the heart of authoritarian and theocratic politics around the world, including in the United States. The Trump-Pence administration worked hard to build a global anti-abortion coalition that would oppose the international expansion of reproductive and sexual rights. Even after the Biden-Harris administration reversed Trump’s expanded Global Gag Rule and other egregious policies, anti-abortion stalwarts allied with the Christian Right have kept up the fight. While U.S. observers are focused on the Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022 decision to overturn Roe, it is important to grasp the impact of anti-abortion activism in the Americas. Unlike the U.S., the 20 countries in the Western hemisphere that ratified the American Convention on Human Rights are subject to its interpretation by regional human rights tribunals. They experience the anti-rights backlash differently than U.S. citizens, because their struggles depend on transnational forces and are rooted in international law.
A focus on sovereignty is key to the global anti-abortion movement that developed during the Trump years. The sovereignty strategy, as I call it, holds that sovereign countries should be free to make their own decisions and write their own “life and family” laws, without interference from supranational agencies such as the United Nations (UN), European Union, or Organization of American States (OAS). Political appointees took this message to the United Nations, where they argued that states should not be “pressured” to comply with policies that contradict their laws, values, or constitutions. As Valerie Huber, former U.S. Special Representative on Global Women’s Health during the Trump administration put it in a recent National Review article, “Allowing nations to protect women’s rights and safety without interference from pro-abortion lobbyists or politicians is an important part of respecting sovereignty.”
The Trump-Pence administration and their Republican allies in Congress used the sovereignty strategy aggressively. They hoped to build a broad-based global anti-abortion coalition that could stop the UN from promoting or protecting reproductive health and rights. If the sovereignty strategy prevailed, they hoped that UN member states would be able to claim exemptions from UN oversight on any laws that pertain to reproduction or sexuality. Ideally, in their view, any country should be able to claim immunity from international oversight related to gender identity, access to abortion, sexuality education, surrogacy, definitions of personhood, and so forth. If the strategy worked, it would carve out “sovereignty spaces” in international governance where the Christian Right’s definition of religious freedom would take precedence over international norms and human rights laws. They see the sovereignty strategy as a corrective against multilateralism, although it would hollow out the UN country by country. In its most extreme forms, sovereignty amounts to an attack against bodily autonomy, the expansion of human rights, and the international rule of law.
The sovereignty strategy operates in many global arenas, but it targets Latin America as a heavily Christian region. The fact that Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic tightened abortion bans in recent years was encouraging to anti-abortion conservatives. So too was the fact that Pope Francis is Latin America’s first pontiff. Although they are not overly fond of a pope they consider too liberal, the Christian Right is willing to forge alliances between evangelicals and Catholics to solidify their base, hoping to stem the tide of secular liberalism. They rallied in the streets, sinking money and resources into Latin America, all the while intensifying the connections between U.S. and Latin American anti-abortion activists. One of the most influential anti-abortion groups in the U.S., Human Life International, even made a propaganda film linking Catholic devotion with anti-abortion activism, as a fundraising tool for its misleading so-called crisis pregnancy centers in Latin America.
In the hands of the global anti-abortion lobby, sovereignty is a political tactic, a religious tenet, and an appeal to human rights originalism. As a political tactic, sovereignty is a classic power play. Anti-abortion activists insist that “true” legal authority resides in religiously inspired nation-states. They use sovereignty as a weapon against the expansion of human rights and what they see as a liberal multilateral consensus. In the hands of global anti-abortion activists, sovereignty offers freedom from international constraint, oversight, and compliance.
As a religious tenet, sovereignty has a special allure for the Christian Right. It symbolizes sanctuary, a place where faith communities share moral and spiritual values. It holds a special promise for those evangelicals who dream of a theocratic future. When God is the sovereign of the state, there will be one nation, under God’s natural law. In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, political philosopher Wendy Brown says that state sovereignty sometimes becomes more theological even as it weakens. “Popular desires for restored sovereign might and protection,” she writes, “carry a strongly religious aura.” Brown captures the sovereignty sentiment perfectly. God is refuge in an uncertain and fragmented world. As his servants, anti-abortion activists believe they do God’s work. The Alliance Defending Freedom’s first guiding principle holds that the organization is Christ-centered, “trusting in His sovereignty as we seek to convey hope to all we serve (John 15:5).” ADF, along with its subsidiary ADF International, is an ultraconservative Christian legal advocacy organization that expanded into Latin America over the past decade. According to Gillian Kane of Ipas, ADF “works under the premise that religion trumps all other rights.” ADF promotes sovereignty as an important tool for achieving religious liberty rooted in Christian nationalism. Personal sovereignty gives people the right to conscientious objection, to refrain from providing contraception and abortion care, or from baking wedding cakes for gay couples. Corporate sovereignty gives employers the right to operate their business according to their religious beliefs, which in ADF’s view means they can refuse to provide certain services or benefits for their employees on religious grounds. ADF uses the notion of sovereignty to set up “parallel sovereignty spheres like churches and families,” writes legal scholar Eugenia Relaño Pastor. In these parallel spheres of sovereignty, God’s law takes precedence over secular laws. Sovereignty corresponds to the rise of Christian Dominionism.
Sovereignty also makes sense as a platform for anti-abortion activists because it is one of the few fundamental rights that all UN members agreed to. As C-Fam writer Stefano Gennarini says, “It is a fundamental tenet of international law and foreign relations that sovereign States themselves, individually and mutually, are the final interpreters of their obligations and commitments under international law and other international agreements.” This makes sovereignty a good example of what legal scholar Katharine Young calls “human rights originalism.” She coined this phrase to describe a novel legal theory advanced by the Trump-Pence administration that human rights should never be expanded beyond those contained in “original” or founding documents. Human rights originalism is a strategy that would reduce the purview of human rights, allowing international institutions to protect only those rights that all members could support. This would mean that human rights could never be broadened or expanded to include issues or identities that might generate disagreement. Anti-abortion activists choose particular originating documents and phrases—like sovereignty—to insist that originalist interpretations of those documents should prevail. For the global anti-abortion coalition, this boiled down to one simple premise: “abortion laws are for sovereign countries to determine.”
Putting the sovereignty strategy into action
The Trump administration pressed the case for sovereignty at the highest levels. In August 2020, for example, Pompeo’s controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights issued its final report, which argued that countries should be allowed to form their own interpretations of international human rights law, especially regarding the right to life. Pompeo’s State Department spelled out the logic most clearly in a concurrent report to the UN Human Rights Council: “The United States believes in the sovereign right of nations to make their own laws to protect the unborn, and rejects any interpretation of international human rights to require any State to provide access to abortion.”
Just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Pompeo announced the signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family. Initially signed by 32 countries, the non-binding declaration claims that there is “no international right to abortion.” It cites the “long-standing international consensus that each nation has the sovereign right to implement programs and activities consistent with their laws and policies.”
The Trump-Pence administration tested the sovereignty strategy not just by issuing reports and cutting funding to multilateral organizations, but by threatening to withdraw from them entirely. First the administration cut funding to UNFPA and withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council. Trump made an even bigger splash in May 2020, when he announced that the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, the press did not dwell on the anti-abortion angle. Trump blamed his decision on China, which he said had “total control over the World Health Organization.” This made sense, to the extent that Trump’s anti-China nationalism supported his decision to pull out of so-called “globalist infrastructures” like the WHO.
But reproductive rights advocates saw a different subtext. To them, pulling out of the WHO was part of the internationalization of the anti-abortion movement. Anti-abortion activists have long targeted the WHO, as spelled out in two reports by the ultraconservative Catholic Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam). The first, “The World Health Organization’s Abortion Agenda,” published in 2010, charges the WHO with drifting away from its original mandate to safeguard global public health. The WHO is “tainted,” it says, by its “adoption of a rights-based approach to programming” that threatens the “lives and dignity” of all people including “unborn children.” It accuses the WHO of being hostile to “religion and tradition” and attacking “the national sovereignty of nations through its reinterpretation of international law.” It claims that the WHO pressures countries “to adopt [the WHO’s] agenda, whether or not this violates a country’s sovereign rights.” It charges that the “WHO is now in the business of supporting abortion services … and interfering in the national affairs of member states.”
A decade later, C-Fam was well positioned to press its advantage. Its president Austin Ruse, a long-time anti-LGBTQ/anti-abortion activist and reported member of Opus Dei, gained unprecedented access to the White House as a member of Trump’s Catholic Advisory Group, along with other right-wing Catholics. C-Fam quickly issued a new report, “The World Health Organization’s Abortion Overreach.” Written by in-house researcher Rebecca Oas, it reiterates earlier complaints, charging that the WHO takes its orders from wealthy donors and imposes alien cultural agendas on member states. The report reprises the theme articulated in its 2010 report that the WHO “attempts [to pass] sexual and reproductive health off as a fundamental human right.” The new report emphasizes the importance of national sovereignty.
The global anti-abortion lobby despises the WHO for pragmatic as well as ideological reasons, because the WHO has been at the forefront of expanding access to safe abortion through medication. Medical abortion is a key tool in the WHO’s global effort to reduce unsafe abortion and maternal mortality. Abortion with pills is easier, safer, and more accessible than surgical abortion. Pills also make abortion much harder to identify, regulate, and punish. These developments have led anti-abortion activists like Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, to wage a campaign against what she calls “risky, chemical-abortion pills.” The global anti-abortion coalition, including Personhood Alliance, assails the WHO’s “dangerous push for ‘self-managed,’ do-it yourself abortions.” Several anti-abortion organizations were annoyed that the WHO advised governments to maintain access to safe reproductive services during the coronavirus pandemic. The British Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, for example, charged, “The pro-abortion World Health Organization (WHO) has been preparing for years to exploit a pandemic.” It was around this time that Trump shocked the world with his announcement that the United States would withdraw from the WHO.
Abortion opponents have complained about the WHO’s support for medical abortion since at least 2005, when the agency recommended that two drugs used in the medical management of abortion, mifepristone and misoprostol, be stocked in national drug registries. In 2019, the WHO took the additional step of moving mifepristone and misoprostol onto its core list of essential medicines for the safe management of abortion. With that, the WHO designated these two drugs as among the “minimum medicine needs for a basic health system,” according to researchers at the University of London. The WHO specified that these drugs could be used in abortion care “where permitted under national law and where culturally acceptable.” In 2022, the WHO issued new guidelines to promote access to safe abortion as a lifesaving measure, a move that further infuriated anti-abortion activists.
Trump’s May 2020 announcement to withdraw from the WHO reverberated across anti-abortion organizations, playing to his anti-abortion base in the months before the November 2020 election. LifeSite News, a Canadian far-right Catholic website, hosted a petition to “Thank President Trump for halting U.S. funding to the pro-abortion World Health Organization!” It stated that the “WHO considers abortion ‘essential’ in spite of the fact that it is an elective procedure which kills an innocent person, and deprives crucial medical personnel and supplies to victims of the lethal virus.” Similar hostility toward the WHO was expressed across several global anti-abortion organizations, including the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam) in New York; the American Life League in Virginia; the Campaign Life Coalition in Hamilton, Ontario; Priests for Life in Florida; ADF International; and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in London. Trump may be gone, but the anti-abortion assault on the WHO continues. In an ominous development, the Holy See gained permanent observer status at the WHO in May 2021.
The cascade of high-profile withdrawals from international agencies was consistent with Trump’s “America First” campaign, but it also looked like a performance for the benefit of anti-abortion allies abroad. The administration modeled for those allies how it could cut funding and disavow multilateral organizations in the name of anti-abortion sovereignty.
The sovereignty strategy in Latin America
Even as the Trump administration was pushing the sovereignty strategy for U.S. foreign policy, abortion laws were being liberalized across Latin America. Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, Chile eased restrictions on abortion in 2017, and Argentina legalized abortion in December 2020. Mexico’s Supreme Court would decriminalize abortion in 2021, and in 2022 Colombia legalized abortion through 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Anti-abortion activists had no time to waste. As the “green wave” of abortion legalization continued to build across Latin America, a network of anti-abortion activists laid the foundations for sovereignty. One way they did this was simply to ignore the implications of Inter-American Court rulings with which they disagreed, treating them almost as if they did not exist. Legal scholars in the Latin American anti-abortion coalition will acknowledge that the Inter-American human rights system is a tool for regional integration, democracy building, and oversight of human rights violators, but they object to its involvement in reproductive and sexual rights cases. In 2021, for example, Concerned Women for America criticized the UN and OAS as political instruments, used by “the opposition” to “spread their pro-abortion agenda worldwide, bypassing the authority of the legitimately elected representatives of a nation and undermining countries’ national sovereignty.” Whenever the global anti-abortion lobby saw an opportunity, they worked to amend national and state constitutions and pressure the OAS.
Anti-abortion legislators all over the world are testing the limits of the sovereignty argument. In the U.S., Georgia’s fetal heartbeat bills used a sovereignty argument to expand state protections for fetuses. They argue for constitutional autonomy, saying that states have a substantial interest in protecting fetal life. If sovereignty means respecting the “right of nations to make their own laws to protect the unborn,” as a Trump administration report to the UN Human Rights Council stated, then national laws and constitutions will need to be up to the task. To get prepared, a few Latin American countries (and several Mexican states) amended their national constitutions, and others attempted to do the same. In 2010, the Dominican Republic amended its constitution to protect life “from the moment of conception and until death.” In 2017, Brazil considered a constitutional amendment to ban abortion under all circumstances. In 2021, Honduras tightened its long-standing abortion ban with a constitutional amendment, making it extremely difficult to overturn. In 2021, the president of Guatemala signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration and met with U.S. anti-abortion activists and legislators in Washington, D.C. In 2022, he declared his country the “prolife capital of Latin America” the day after the Guatemalan Congress passed a bill that would have outlawed sexuality education and stiffened penalties for abortion. But the poorly conceived effort went off the rails a few days later, when a surge of opposition forced the president to reverse his position and oppose the bill, on the grounds that it violated both the national constitution and international law. With an anti-abortion majority in Congress and a president eager to impress U.S. Republicans, Guatemala will undoubtedly try again.
Pressuring the OAS
Christian conservatives consider the OAS “globalism’s most effective arm in Latin America.” They are upset over what they consider the OAS’s “abortion lobbying.” The two regional human rights tribunals overseen by the OAS—the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—make decisions that are considered binding on the 20 countries of the Americas that ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). The U.S. never ratified the ACHR, which means that Latin American citizens are bound by the international human rights law in ways that U.S. citizens are not. Latin Americans pay attention to international law, because interpretations of the ACHR by the Inter-American Court are considered “binding on all domestic courts.” Conservatives disapprove, because they want to give precedence to national constitutions and domestic jurisprudence. The antidote for what they see as hemispheric overreach is the sovereignty strategy, which U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) called “America First in the Americas.”
Anti-abortion activists consider the Inter-American Commission and Court dangerous, because those bodies have been increasingly willing to expand sexual and reproductive rights. In 2017, for example, the Court issued an important advisory opinion that liberalized LGBTQ+ rights, including marriage equality and the right of trans people to change their gender markers. This single ruling effectively legalized same-sex marriage throughout the hemisphere. In another landmark decision, the Court overturned a ban on in vitro fertilization in Costa Rica brought by a Catholic attorney who hoped to confer legal personhood on embryos. The Court used the Costa Rican in vitro fertilization case to clarify that reproductive rights are human rights and that embryos cannot be considered juridical persons under the ACHR. These binding decisions sparked a backlash from anti-abortion legal scholars who argue for a “sphere of sovereign reserve.” Law journals are filling up with arguments that the Inter-American human rights rulings should apply only to countries that are party to the disputes, rather than to all the ACHR signatories.
This anger against the Inter-American human rights system is translating into a backlash against their parent body, the OAS. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo punished the OAS in 2019, cutting its funding by a token amount in retribution for its alleged support of abortion. The Alliance Defending Freedom kept up the pressure, insisting that the OAS respect religious freedom. ADF’s website claims that the OAS is a multi-national organization “designed to preserve state sovereignty while upholding human rights for its 35 Member States.”
A sovereignty strategy for the Americas appears more legitimate, of course, if it does not emanate from the United States. U.S. anti-abortion groups therefore worked with Latin Americans to issue their own objections to multilateral rule. In 2017, members of the Hemispheric Congress of Parliamentarians denounced what they perceived as threats to Latin American sovereignty. They issued a declaration calling for independence and self-determination in matters related to life, family, and religious liberty. As reported by ADF, the parliamentarians asserted that “we do not need yet another international body that explains to us how to live.” In 2019, the right-wing presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Paraguay issued a different declaration calling for reform of the Inter-American human rights system. They used a sovereignty argument, stating that tribunals should recognize states’ authority to adjudicate alleged violations of the ACHR. The declaration asserted that resolutions and rulings made by Inter-American bodies should apply only to the litigants, rather than to all ACHR signatories. Human rights groups criticized this declaration as an unprecedented attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Inter-American system of human rights.
As long as Trump was in office, anti-abortion pressures on the OAS did have some limited impact. The anti-abortion lobby challenged the re-election of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, withdrawing their objections only after strong-arming him into making a series of anti-abortion promises. A few anti-abortion commissioners were appointed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, including Edgar Stuardo Ralón of Guatemala and Carlos Bernal Pulido of Colombia. We can expect these high-powered pressure tactics to continue, even as Huber claims that American abortion activists “want to impose their extremism on other countries.” The hypocrisy is staggering.
Sovereignty and bodily autonomy
It is a central tenet of feminist reproductive justice that the deprivation of bodily autonomy defines oppression. We cannot be free if we do not control our bodies, our sexuality, and our reproductive decisions. But the argument for state sovereignty comes at the expense of bodily sovereignty. When the Christian Right elevates the notion of sovereignty, they authorize autocrats to control the bodies of vulnerable “others.” The loss of bodily autonomy affects immigrants, dissidents, and racial, sexual, and religious minorities. We see this happening in Nicaragua and Poland, as autocratic leaders ban abortion, criminalize sexual diversity, and challenge sexuality education. When the global anti-abortion coalition emphasizes state sovereignty to determine life and family law, it ignores bodily autonomy. It ensures that the bodies of the privileged (cisgender men, White and non-Indigenous people, straight people) will be treated as sovereign and immune from state scrutiny, while other bodies will be subject to state surveillance, criminalization, incarceration, and brutalization by the police and others. It glorifies “the unborn” but ignores forced pregnancy, mandatory motherhood, the torture imposed on women forced to carry unviable pregnancies to term, the high rates of rape and incest among young women and girls, and the structural determinants of unwanted pregnancy. Even in countries where abortion is legal in some states, such as Mexico and the U.S., a spate of brazen anti-abortion laws subject pregnant people to surveillance, criminalization, and incarceration.
The sovereignty strategy should not be misconstrued as nationalism. Its proponents hope to mobilize their global coalition to influence multilateral institutions, including the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court. It encourages states to restrict abortion through constitutional amendments, legislative alliances, and multinational coalitions. It uses the “globalist” system, ironically, to attack, infiltrate, and silence globalist initiatives and to limit the expansion of human rights. It uses U.S. power and money to pressure other countries, even while blasting “ideological colonization” and “cultural imperialism” on the part of abortion rights advocates. If the sovereignty strategy succeeds, the anti-abortion coalition will try to pack the Commission and the Court with allies to impose controls on sexual and reproductive bodies. Then it will be happy to give the Inter-American human rights tribunals an opportunity to (re-) interpret the American Convention on Human Rights. The sovereignty strategy is the means to an end for an authoritarian anti-abortion movement with global aspirations.
 The GCD was initially signed by 32 countries on October 22, 2020. Three additional countries (Georgia, Paraguay, and Qatar) signed by January 15, 2021, bringing the total to 35. The U.S. withdrew from the GCD on January 28, 2021, bringing the total to 34. Guatemala signed the GCD on October 12, 2021, bringing the total to 35, and the Russian Federation signed around the same time, bringing the total to 36. Colombia signed the GCD on May 13, 2022, bringing the total to 37 countries as of July 2022.
 While a press release issued by Ipas and an op-ed in The Hill do mention the reproductive rights subtext of Trump’s plan to withdraw from the WHO, many other news sources did not, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and analyses by Time magazine and ProPublica.