From the UK Spectator this week comes a pair of essays by Douglas Murray and Melanie McDonagh praising the American abortion debate. That debate can be difficult to admire when you’re standing at the bottom of a culture war looking up. But as both Murray and McDonagh note, at least here in the States it’s expected that we’ll disagree about abortion, whereas throughout much of Europe it’s regarded as a settled matter.
Why is abortion in America still such a live issue? One reason, I think, is that in most other first-world countries it’s been the subject of democratic deliberation, with people finding middle ground through their legislatures or referenda. For all the screeching about the Mississippi law, which bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Spain has abortion on demand only through 14 weeks, Ireland through 12 weeks, and Italy through 90 days.
Contrast that to Roe v. Wade, which saw a black-robed patriarchy mansplain to the states why abortions must be legal up to 24 weeks. This effectively abolished self-government over one of the most important ethical issues of our time. And because the best way to start a debate is to tell people they can’t have one, out came the signs, the marches, the bores in handmaid’s costumes. America’s abortion battle is sometimes waged between extremes — shout your abortion! versus lock her up! — but at least it’s there, it’s energized, and it tries to do justice to its terrible subject matter.
What the pro-choice side of that debate seeks to do is to end the debate without ever winning it. Their arguments are correspondingly a logical pretzel. Progressives insist that constitutional rights like speech and gun ownership aren’t absolute, yet legal abortion is absolute because it’s a constitutional right, even though it isn’t mentioned in the Constitution. Choice is bad when it comes to cigarettes and health insurance but not when it comes to killing a fetus. Democracy is good, except when the demos start voting to regulate Planned Parenthood. Marginalized groups must be protected, except for the unborn.
The point is that the points don’t matter. What pro-choicers ultimately want is for legal abortion to be set out of bounds, an unquestioned national consensus, like chilled beer or driving on the right side of the road. The irony is that they look to Europe for inspiration, even though Europe is a good deal more conservative on abortion than they are. Keep your laws off my body! It’s worth stressing just how few civilized countries actually do that.
One country that supposedly does do this is that great enlightened permafrost to our north, Canada, whose abortion regime is worth examining in greater detail. Canadians love to point out that — and, well, they don’t mean to be smug or anything — but unlike down in Trumpistan, they don’t have any laws on the books restricting the right to choose. That means a Canadian woman can theoretically terminate her pregnancy right until the baby is born.
Yet in practice this is not what happens. For starters, Canada has a lower abortion rate than the United States (as do most first-world nations). And it has an especially low late-term abortion rate. Why? Because most Canadian providers refuse to perform the procedure. In Quebec, Canada’s second most populous province, the local College of Physicians, stipulates that abortions should not be performed after twenty-three weeks except in cases of “serious congenital anomalies” and under “exceptional” circumstances.
So what of those Canadians who do seek third-trimester abortions? Many of them end up coming to America, where several states allow any pregnancy to be terminated. A Quebec legal authority explains of late-term procedures that “some people who can’t get an abortion in Canada travel to the United States to have an abortion at this stage,” with all expenses publicly reimbursed. There are even US abortion clinics that advertise third-trimester procedures to Canadians!
And they say American exceptionalism is dead. This is the reality of our post-Roe world: America as a global outlier, an abortion tourism destination, where an almost fully grown baby very much able to feel pain can be chopped up and tossed out with the trash.
Just because it’s called “progress” doesn’t mean it is. Consider: abortion has actually been rather common throughout history. Aristotle condoned it and it was available on demand throughout the Roman Empire (the Romans banned it during the third century, but that had more to do with paternal rights than the life of the fetus). Christianity brought a change, though there are still accounts of pregnancies being terminated in the Middle Ages. And as Alito himself notes, English common law for centuries permitted abortions up to so-called quickening.
Then, in the twentieth century, there was a revolution in technology. The ultrasound allowed us to see the fetus moving in the womb while preemie care guaranteed that babies who might have otherwise perished could survive. We now know the fetus develops brain activity by six weeks and can feel pain as early as twelve weeks. The general trend of the research has been to push personhood further and further back, frustrating the benighted who view the birth canal as some kind of ironclad threshold between oblivion and life.
As our abortion debate now erupts once again, pro-lifers ought to focus on reclaiming that word, “progress.” Some Europeans view Americans as backward on abortion. They’re right, just not for the reasons they think.