It could be said that MPs voted on Wednesday to make it easier to murder babies. The Commons voted by 215 to 188 to retain the ‘pills by post’ service introduced at the pandemic’s start. This was despite the government’s wish to scrap it.
This service has enabled women to take both pills needed for an abortion at home, rather than, as previously, taking the first in the presence of a clinician. Once the bill is law, it shall always be possible to end the life of an unborn child within the first ten weeks of a pregnancy from the comfort of one’s own home. Taking a life has never been so cosy.
Of course, that isn’t how most will see it. It doesn’t summarise the general media opinion, or even my own. Polling suggests the British public support retaining these services, and retaining current abortion laws. Most do not consider abortion to be murder, but as a regrettable necessity required in specific and unfortunate circumstances.
The bulk of the coverage reflected this: from The Guardian to The Daily Mail, note was made of the most emotional speeches, and the warnings of various groups of potential dire consequences of not passing this amendment to the Health and Care Bill. Despite Conservative MPs voting by a margin of over 100 not to keep these measures in place, the Commons has said they shall remain.
I am no zealot for either side of the abortion debate, being of traditional agnostic Anglican stock and mainstream Tory views. I therefore lack either the enthusiasm of my pro-life Catholic friends or my pro-choice liberal ones.
But I am distinctly uncomfortable about a practice that has seen over 125,000 abortions performed over the last two years being made permanent based on a few hours’ debate. We already have some of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe – they can be performed up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, double what most of our continental neighbours allow. A quarter of all pregnancies end in abortions; over 200,000 pregnancies are legally aborted in England and Wales every year.
All this goes on with very little public debate. Our obsession with American politics ensures that we hear a lot about the perpetual Roe v. Wade row waged across the pond. Recent bills to restrict or ban abortion in Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi, have all received cries of foul from the BBC and The Guardian.
The Supreme Court vote last year on a bill from the Lone Star State restricting abortion beyond when a heartbeat could be heard was prominent in the BBC’s headlines. This must have been a bit bizarre for those viewers hoping to know what was going on this side of the Atlantic. It reflects the extent to which supporting abortion rights is as much a shibboleth of contemporary British liberalism as holidaying in Tuscany or enjoying Radio 4.
Why is this? The traditional British unwillingness to cause a fuss must play some part. Most find the bitterness and partisanship of American politics abhorrent. Our brief flirtation with it over Brexit was a profoundly depressing experience; although it may pain GB News to hear this, the prospect of a culture war fills voters more with dread than hope.
But it should also be acknowledged that our flexible, centralised constitution and liberal-leaning judiciary have greatly restricted the potential for abortion to become as much of a hot topic as it has across the pond. We have had Roe v. Wade by stealth.
When David Steel’s Abortion Act legalised the practice in 1967, abortion was allowed on the grounds of protecting the mother’s life, or as a kindness to a child that might be born with severe handicaps.
However, the liberality with which the law has been interpreted has allowed for it to be treated as another form of contraception. I am hardly able to get on a high-horse: I have friends who have had abortions, and partners who have used the morning after-pill. Personally, I’m rather keen not to be a father at 22. Nevertheless, as Ross Clark has pointed out, liberal judges and politicians have extended the law’s use in practice far beyond what it was ever intended to allow.
I may be, to quote a man with much more reason to be so than myself, afraid of Americans. But at least Uncle Sam debates these issues. At least the assumption isn’t always in the direction of greater liberality – as when MPs from England, Scotland, and Wales voted to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland whilst Stormont was suspended. At least pro-life students aren’t automatically treated as social pariahs when they make their case on campus, or politicians treated as bizarre for arguing a position that reflects their religion. At least we could argue that, with 90 per cent of abortions being performed before 12 weeks, British limits could be brought in line with the rest of Europe’s. That is a position held by a significant minority of the public, after all.
But no dice. That number will tick up past 250,000, and then past 300,000. Few will bat an eye-lid, and politicians will devote little time to debating it. And I can’t shift the feeling that that is wrong.