5 May 2022

Take it from an American, there’s no chance of a ‘Roe vs Wade’ moment in Britain

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As an American living in London and working in Westminster, I often get asked why I identify with the centre-right in the UK but as a Democrat in the US. Besides the obvious fact that the entire American political spectrum has shifted to the right, my overriding reason is that many of the left/right social and cultural battles that have been fought and won here are still raging back home.

This was thrown into a whole new light earlier this week with the leak suggesting the Supreme Court wants to repeal Roe v Wade – the landmark 1973 ruling protecting a woman’s right to seek abortion without undue government restriction. Often lost in this most fractious of debates is that the original ruling also noted the right was not absolute, and must be balanced against the State’s ‘important interests in safeguarding health, maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life’. Various states have, indeed, already taken it upon themselves to impose varyingly draconian conditions on when a woman can and can’t have access to an early termination.

More generally, this week’s furore exposes one of the great problems with American’s separation of powers – that a fairly crucial and basic right can be taken away in one fell swoop, based on the subjective judgment of nine individuals. And often it’s a question not of absolutes, but of emphasis: the Justices who oversaw the original decision determined that the 14th Amendment protected women from intrusive government intervention into an intimate decision. Today’s bench evidently feel that Roe v Wade flies in the face of the 10th Amendment’s provision that any right not explicitly given to the federal government by the Constitution remains the jurisdiction of the States. The Constitution does not mention the right to an abortion, their reasoning goes, therefore it’s down to the states.

That might sound like a rather dry legal argument, but the outcry over what it heralds is not undue. Abortion will almost certainly become illegal in no fewer than 26 states, impacting tens of millions of women. Indeed, many states already have statutes on the books that ensure – should Roe v Wade ever be overturned – the ban would be instituted immediately. Nor is it so simple as saying women, many of whom may not have much money, can simply travel out of their home state to get an abortion at the drop of a hat.

Faced with a cultural and political moment many American women have been dreading for years, I have to say it’s encouraging to feel support from people in my adopted country. And a fundamental change to the rights of half the US population is absolutely worth talking, and worrying, about. But, despite some rather breathless op-eds suggesting ‘Britain is next’, I really don’t fear the same thing happening here.

Most obviously, in the UK the right to an abortion is codified in primary legislation, undoing which would involve a lengthy and undoubtedly extremely fraught parliamentary process of committees, debates, multiple rounds of amendments, House of Lords assent and so on. More to the point though, no government in its right mind would try, because British public opinion is firmly in the corner of preserving a woman’s right to choose. Moreover, Parliament reflects that sentiment, as the recent vote to retain women’s right to telemedicine termination makes clear.

Watching the visceral British reaction to what is still an essentially domestic American issue is also a reminder that, much as you love to hate us, the UK remains extremely fond of importing American culture. In days gone by that might have extended only to music or movies, but these days it’s increasingly true of politics. The almost wholly imported debates on Black Lives Matter and police brutality are a fine example – crystallised in the absurd spectacle of British protesters shouting ‘stop, don’t shoot!’ at unarmed Metropolitan Police officers. Of course, racism and police brutality are real problems in the UK, but let’s not pretend either is on anything like the same scale as in my homeland.

Likewise, when it comes to abortion I’m very glad the UK isn’t facing the same battle as my compatriots. It’s reassuring to me that women aren’t forced to carry a pregnancy they don’t want or to risk their lives getting an illegal abortion. I’m also encouraged by the concern shown by Brits for the plight of millions of American women. I just hope that instead of implying the risk is just as real in the UK, Brits will recognise just how good they have it here.

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Morgan Schondelmeier is Director of Operations at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.