What America gets right about the abortion debate

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

There are two things non-Americans can almost never understand about America and should probably never speak about. The first is guns. If you have a British accent and arrive in America, or talk about America, you should be very careful before opining on the Second Amendment.

It isn’t a precise analogy, but you might compare it to an American arriving in Britain and suddenly talking about the rights and wrongs of hereditary monarchy. There are lots of reasons why countries end up with the institutions they have. And though Her Majesty the Queen is clearly responsible for fewer fatalities each year than America’s right to bear arms, the Second Amendment is as much a centrepiece of American democracy as the monarchy is of our own. Outsiders might find it barmy, and aspects of the Second Amendment maybe are (notably some of the arms that people are now able to bear). But that is the settlement Americans have – and it is probably for the best for outsiders to keep their wonderment to themselves.

The other issue that outsiders find most unfathomable about America is the culture war about abortion. There is a reason for that. In countries like our own the abortion debate is essentially over – though abortion has come a long way since it was first made legal in Britain. In 2020 there were almost 225,000 abortions in England, Scotland and Wales. That is the highest number on record, exceeding even the previous peak of 2019. That 2020 figure is almost ten times the number carried out in the year after abortion became legal in this country.

Back then most of the cases were justified on the grounds of risk to the physical or mental health of the mother. I suppose it is possible that the number of women in the UK facing physical or mental risk from allowing their pregnancy to go to full term has gone up tenfold. More likely is that abortions have become easier to acquire and less troublesome to perform. The specific grounds for abortion laid out in the 1967 Act long ago spilled out. But few people in Britain seem much exercised by this.

Catholics are, of course. Or at least most of them are. But outside of that minority most of the country seems to have made its peace with the idea of a quarter of all pregnancies in the UK being terminated. One reason is the undoubted strength of the argument that abortion should be available to women who have been raped or otherwise forced into pregnancy. That this constitutes a tiny percentage of the relevant cases is ignored. Then there is the claim that if abortions were made less available women would go for dangerous backstreet operations. This is the spectre of Vera Drake and other movies. Women in Ireland coming over to the UK when abortion was illegal in the Republic are another memory. So what started as something permitted in very specific circumstances has become another means of contraception in the UK.

Even if this makes you queasy, almost nobody in Britain of any political stripe knows what to do about it. If they venture an opinion, they are shouted down very firmly.

Personally, although I find the American abortion debate unsettling I also find it rather impressive. Many British and European people think it is a sign of American backwardness, as though the country must, by definition, catch up with us at some stage. I tend to think otherwise. Whatever the to-and-fro of the debate, the fact that America still regards abortion as a serious moral issue seems to me to be a demonstration that America is still a serious moral country. It recognises that here is one of the great moral issues: the question of life, and the encouragement or otherwise of its cessation. It is not settled on the matter, nor does it imagine there is a clear direction of moral travel directed by the passage of time.

So this week’s leak from the Supreme Court came as a bombshell. The possibility that Roe vs Wade may be overturned has sent left-wing America into a panic. Within minutes of the draft judgment being leaked there were crowds outside the Supreme Court screaming about fascism.

In fact, the detail of the judgment is worth lingering over for more than a moment. What Judge Alito says is that it is not clear that the constitution permits a right to an abortion, and that the right effectively mandated by the courts 50 years ago may be unconstitutional. In America this is a big issue on its own. If the public votes for something, either at state or national level, that is one thing. But should the Supreme Court engage in political interpretations of the constitution? Many Americans think not.

As usual the debate has now been seized by the spectrum’s shoutiest ends. On one side some conservatives are salivating at what could be the biggest setback American liberals would have had in a generation. On the other are people like attorney-general Letitia James, who told a demonstration on Tuesday that when she chose to have an abortion she ‘walked proudly into Planned Parenthood. And I make no apologies to anyone.’ As Mary Wakefield wrote here some years ago, there is often something discordant in the pro-abortion argument. A kind of glee. Why walk ‘proudly’ into an abortion clinic? Surely under any circumstances it is a situation that is sad, to say the least?

All such nuance will be lost in the coming days. One of America’s most simmering culture wars has just been turned up to the highest heat. Both sides will now try to wound the other very deeply. They will taunt each other. They will exaggerate and lie about each other. And in the process they will forget the majority in America who do not want to deny abortions to all American women, but who have doubts about second and third trimester abortions, and are certainly not on the abortion-celebrating train. Buckle up, America. This is going to be one ugly ride.

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