Earlier this week, a document was leaked from the United States Supreme Court indicating that the Justices intend to overturn the country’s national abortion law, commonly referred to as the Roe v Wade decision. Incorrectly, this has been reported in some outlets to mean the banning of abortion in America. As is the case for many of the debates that matter in US politics, which are difficult to separate from the deeply divisive discourse, it is primarily a dispute about whether powers should reside with the federal government or with individual states.
I am not going to pass a verdict on the merits or otherwise of American federalism. The law on abortion in America is, of course, a matter for Americans to decide. If the Supreme Court’s final decision resembles the leaked draft opinion, the power to legislate on the matter of abortion will be returned to individual states.
Roe v Wade is not supported by the majority of women
Some states, New York for example, have already indicated they would introduce more relaxed abortion laws. According to the think tank Guttmacher Institute, originally a subsidiary of the US abortion provider Planned Parenthood, a total of 16 states (plus the District of Columbia) have laws that protect the “right” to abortion to varying degrees. By contrast, 26 states are “certain or likely” to seek tougher restrictions or bans if Roe v Wade is overturned. Ultimately, the law would be determined by each state’s legislature and public demand for change or continuity in each particular case.
There are many — including those in our country — who have rushed to declare that the Supreme Court’s tentative decision somehow goes against the will of the people. This disingenuous argument claims that the law is settled, that there is little demand for change, and that it amounts to the unnecessary reopening of a wound that has long ago healed.
The data from polling suggests otherwise. A recent Marist Poll from January 2022 shows that over 60 per cent of Americans reject the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, and support changes that either ban abortion or return the matter to the states. Crucially for those who dishonestly frame this debate as men telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, this was also the view of 60 per cent of women surveyed.
Indeed the polling shows the current status quo provided by Roe v Wade is not supported by the majority of women in America. Most women believe there should be significant restrictions on abortion. The polling shows that 69 per cent of women believe that abortion should be available, at most, during the first three months of pregnancy; allowed only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother; or not permitted at all.
The figures also suggest a more nuanced attitude in reality from people who describe themselves as pro-choice, with a majority (52 per cent) believing abortion should be restricted in the same circumstances described above.
Most women in America (82 per cent) think laws can exist that protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn baby. This view is supported by 76 per cent of people who consider themselves pro-choice, and 79 per cent of people who identify as Democrats. Contrary to the view that public opinion is settled on this, this polling shows real concerns about abortion from across the spectrum.
The same is true of public opinion in the UK. Polling from Savanta ComRes found that 60 per cent of people, including 70 per cent of women, believe that the current 24-week limit for abortion should be reduced. 93 per cent of women surveyed said someone considering having an abortion should have a legal right to independent counselling from a source that has no financial interest in her decision, and 91 per cent of women agree that sex-selective abortion should be explicitly banned by the law.
US abortion limits far exceed that of EU countries
Most topically for the UK, 76 per cent of people agree that doctors should be required by law to verify in person that a woman seeking an abortion is not under pressure from a third party — something that is, of course, much harder to detect under the current arrangements where abortion pills can be sent by post following a telephone consultation. Meanwhile, just one per cent support abortion up to birth — the long-cherished goal of pro-choice campaigners.
In Great Britain, there have been almost 10 million abortions since the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967. In 2020, there were over 200,000 abortions with an average of an abortion every two and a half minutes. You do not have to share my belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every human life to realise that the current situation cannot be right.
The US has one of the highest abortion rates in the world — beaten only by a small number of countries in a list of shame that includes China, Cuba and Kazakhstan. At least America is rare amongst developed countries for continuing public debate — albeit sadly often overheated — on the value of life with respect to abortion.
Nonetheless, many people are surprised to learn that the median time limit for abortion in US states far exceeds that of EU countries where the median is 12 weeks. How many would guess that Virginia, for example, allows abortions up to 25 weeks compared to Denmark, which allows them for up to less than half that time (12 weeks)? Our own country, regrettably, has a poor record in this regard — something I hope will be addressed given that scientific evidence now accepts that foetal viability is 22 weeks, rather than the 24-week limit set in law.
The US Supreme Court will publish its final verdict in the next few months. It remains to be seen whether the intention of this week’s leak — to put pressure on the court to change its draft opinion — will be successful.
What happens in the United States matters beyond its borders. American political earthquakes tend to reverberate around the world. Those of us who have been arguing against the UK’s laws in this area for decades can hope this is the start of the tide turning. The draft decision from the Supreme Court represents a rare opportunity to push back against a law that has led to the deaths of over 63 million babies since 1973. It would not be the end of the battle against abortion, but would represent a strong start in a fightback that is so desperately needed.
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