Politicians are lining up to condemn the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Activists are warning us that this is the start of a fresh assault on abortion rights in Britain. What starts in the core spreads to the periphery; a new wave of pro-life policies will soon be here. What’s less clear is where this wave is meant to come from, given that every major British party is opposed to the Supreme Court decision.
Once again, Westminster politics has mistaken Britain for America. The Conservative party may be in hoc to a blonde tousle-haired populist, but it isn’t quietly stacking the judiciary with pro-life justices in order to ban abortion. This is partly because the British constitution doesn’t work that way, but mostly because there’s no popular demand to do so.
For all that it may be convenient to pretend otherwise, abortion is simply not a salient political issue in Britain. Keir Starmer described the Supreme Court’s decision as ‘a massive setback for women’s rights’. Boris Johnson called it a ‘big step backwards’, stating that he has ‘always believed in a woman’s right to choose’. For the Liberal Democrats, Layla Moran noted that ‘here we are not under threat, thank God’.
There is a remarkable degree of consensus between parties on what the law should be, and this reflects the views of the public. Some 85 per cent of the population believe women should have the right to an abortion. Just 5 per cent do not. Over 53 per cent of the population want to keep the time limits as they are or increase them, compared to 28 per cent in favour of reductions or bans. It’s reasonable to feel sympathy for those affected by American politics. It isn’t reasonable to pretend what happens there could happen here.
Obviously, this hasn’t stopped people trying. From hyperventilating articles on the threat posed to women’s rights in Britain to politicians tabling urgent questions in parliament on the government’s response to American domestic matters, the usual confusion of British and American politics has been in full swing.
Labour MP Stella Creasy tweeted that Britons should ‘be prepared’. After all, ‘no one thought American Supreme Court would ever overturn a right previously granted either’. Her message to Americans? ‘Your fight is our fight. They won’t stop trying to control women’. Another MP, Diana Johnson, claimed that ‘right-wing American groups and media will now feel fully emboldened to campaign for the rolling back of women’s rights in the United Kingdom’.
Quite how this is meant to happen isn’t clear. Every such article and argument eventually concedes two points: there’s no mass movement arguing for the change, and there’s no party advocating for it. To this, we can add one more: where there is pressure for abortion law to change, it has generally been in a progressive direction.
Britain’s Conservative party has been in power for 12 years. In this time, parliament has consistently moved to make abortion easier. In 2017, a scheme was introduced to fund abortions in England – and travel costs – for Northern Irish women. In 2018, legislation was passed to allow women to take the second abortion pill at home. In 2019, Westminster altered Northern Irish law – going above devolution – to decriminalise abortion and allow access. In 2020, taking both abortion pills at home was temporarily legalised. And in 2022, this was made permanent, while the government passed regulations to ensure that abortion services were provided in Northern Ireland.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Once again, with feeling: Britain is not America, no matter how much we seem to think it is. When people ask what the Roe decision means for Britain, it’s no different to asking what the decision to protect concealed carry rights means for policing in London. It’s an irrelevance to day-to-day British life, no matter how much social media may give the impression that our own rights hang in the balance.
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