The Mid-Atlantic Blog

March 05, 2006

Abortion In America

Over the next few years the American polity is going to move beyond Roe vs Wade. That much is certain. How it does so, and what that means, will be fascinating.

The underlying problem here is simple. The pre-Roe environment was one where abortion was a state-level issue, decided as part of the political process. Pro-abortion activists had (and have) a firmly felt belief that this was inappropriate, and that the right to abortion was one that should be available to all.

Now, the traditional approach to this type of problem was two-fold. First, pro-abortion activists could mount political campaigns in the states that banned abortion, attempting to change the law through the political process. Second, they could attempt to have a constitutional amendment passed.

The hurdle they faced? There wasn't enough support for their views amongst the voting population.

That poses a problem in a democracy, of course. However, instead of simply stepping up the attempt to change minds, a novel approach was taken. A "right" to abortion that no-one had noticed before was discovered in the constitution.

The result? The effect of a constitutional amendment, without the awkward "getting the agreement of the country" downside.

The effects of this have been deeply corrosive, and it has taken a long time for the conservative movement to react effectively. In fact, it has been one of the key elements of the conservative rebuild.

It is, however, poorly understood on this side of the Atlantic. "Anti-abortion" activists come in all shapes and sizes: from those who want abortions totally abolished, through strict-construction constitutionalists to those who want greater decentralisation. Many of them want restrictions on abortion, sure. But many simply want essentially political issues returned to the people. The one thing that certainly isn't true is that the current key demand from the anti-abortion movement is the actual abolition of abortion. Instead, their core demand is for the return of abortion to the political sphere, allowing it to be legislated upon by politicians, rather than simply by lawyers. At that point, many may fight for abolition - but most of their supporters will focus on limits... and limits that most even in the UK would likely find reasonable.

The irony, of course, is that the approach of the pro-choice movement has been deeply damaging to them, and to the Democrats (a party which they have essentially captured). The removal of abortion from the political process has invigorated the right, and has led (in significant part) to a grand alliance of various interest groups that have created the political movement that at the last national election to Republican majorities in both House and Senate, and the White House. At the same time the Democrats becoming a single issue party on this issue has caused the immense problems, and lost them both talented politicians and significant votes.

Now the appointment of Roberts and Alito to the Court may be acting as a watershed for the pro-choice movement, making them think beyond their current unsustainable attachment to Roe v Wade, and trying to find new approaches to attain their goals. This will take some time , of course, but a good example of the type of thought process they'll have to go through to adjust to this new world can be seen here, in the Washington Post today.

Of course, even this type of discussion doesn't go far enough. This issue will eventually return to the people, and the pro-choice campaign will need to engage the people at last if they are going to win their cause. But that's democracy, and it's certainly how we do it over here in the UK.

And that's the real point to remember about this. Over the next few years the coverage of this issue is likely to be deeply distorted. Whenever you hear it discussed, remember this one fact. The House of Commons can change the abortion rules in the UK. Neither Congress nor the states can in the US. The fight going on today is a fight to correct that imbalance.

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