The US supreme court leak has sent shockwaves across the Atlantic, but why and what does it mean for the abortion debate here in the UK?
Context and culture war?
Fifty years ago, the US supreme court in Roe v Wade interpreted the constitution so as to introduce a right to abortion. Yesterday, a political site published a leaked early draft of a supreme court ruling expected this summer. The leak was unprecedented and is being investigated. But what it revealed – that a majority opinion in the Dobbs v Jackson case may overturn Roe v Wade, returning responsibility for abortion laws to each state legislature rather than set by the court across the country – has provoked some pro-choice/abortion activists in America and here in the UK, to react with apocalyptic hysteria.
From this side of the pond, we see this latest news story through a distorted lens in terms of culture and context. We don’t know what the final ruling in Dobbs v Jackson will be – no one does. But the way in which this story hit the international news cycle, and the immediate and visceral emotional responses felt by some is perhaps a warning to us all. These are deeply sensitive issues which remain unsettled, and we are concerned that, in the midst of a culture war, both women and unborn children will be the casualties.
Challenge and change?
Do women need unlimited access to abortion? Without a “right” to abortion, what will happen to women? Would women be less equal than they were? Does increased protection for unborn children necessarily mean less protection for women? Are lives really at risk?
“Roe” is perhaps the most famous or infamous legal case in the world. Its impact transcended American borders, becoming shorthand for all that was evil or good about abortion, depending on your view of the world. Abortion became defined within a right to privacy and reduced to “my body, my choice”. Around the world, Roe v Wade became an established part of the playbook for abortion activism and law change.
For pro-life activists, Roe v Wade had wrongly and falsely created a legal right to terminate the preborn human being, devaluing in law and culture the unborn child, and based on choice alone. The level of access to abortion unjustly became the measure of progress for a woman’s sense of, and access to, freedom and equality.
That Roe vs Wade would be challenged and potentially overturned has long been acknowledged even by those who support the access to abortion that it created, including by women’s rights hero and former associate justice of the supreme court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who herself viewed the 1973 ruling as flawed.
But those 50 years of pro-choice/abortion laws and policy have normalised abortion and the dogma of choice that underpins it. Pro-abortion ideologies have defined and determined equality, freedom and justice for women by their ability to terminate their pregnancy at will. Some of the messaging in the last few days is that any restrictions on abortion will be a threat to every area of women’s rights from education to healthcare, protection against domestic violence to personal happiness.
Women’s rights have been framed within a tug of war where both lives in pregnancy are pitted against each other. For one to be free to live, the termination of the other must be freely available.
Closer to home?
In Great Britain there has been state sponsored and sanctioned abortions for 54 years. The most recent abortion statistics recorded the highest ever number of abortions at more than 210,000 in 2020, a rise in repeat abortions at more than 40 per cent. And they show that the vast majority, 81 per cent, of abortions are for women “whose marital status was given as single”.
There has been much fearmongering about women dying yet there are no proposals to ban abortion in life-threatening situations and all the while the abortion lobby continues to push policies of what have been proved to be, significantly more risky, DIY at-home abortions. In Great Britain, official statistics show that as many as 98 per cent of abortions are for reasons which have nothing to do with any risk to the life or physical health of the women or baby.
Studies in the US and UK suggest the two main reasons for abortion are financial and relational insecurities, and that there is a link between intimate partner violence, pregnancy and abortion is known. Areas with the highest rates of deprivation have double the rates of abortion.
It is clear that lives are being chosen for termination and women are being hurt by abortion because we are failing to offer the care and support necessary for both lives to be chosen.
Better choices and conversations?
Abortion activists say they speak for women (often bluntly as a homogenous group) when they demand ever easier access to abortion. But the evidence of over 50 years of abortion shows that a choice of abortion in itself doesn’t solve relational or financial pressures. An individual woman may have a so-called “right” to abortion but if she feels this is her only or “best” choice, then is the termination of a possibly otherwise wanted baby really a choice?
It’s time for better.
If Roe vs Wade is indeed overturned, the termination of unborn life in the US will no longer be legally reduced to a private matter between a woman and her physician. The likely effect will be intense campaigning in an election year, with both those in favour of retaining Roe vs Wade, and those who want to overturn it, seeking to press their case in public debate and through new laws. That, in turn, will likely affect attitudes to abortion law and culture here in the UK. How should we respond?
We believe that both lives have dignity, worth and value and are deserving of legal recognition and protection. But it’s not enough for the law to say no to unlimited abortion; there is a social responsibility to enable and support both women and unborn children pre- and post- birth. This is an increasingly radical, yet rational and reasonable position – we believe it is also profoundly biblical.
We hope that the striking down of this case will result in many unborn lives being saved, however, the structural and systemic reasons that drive women to seek abortion, like poverty, violence, and individualism, cannot remain unchallenged and unanswered. The overturning of this case is not a silver bullet, but we hope it does signal a new beginning, at the very least a conversation about a better future where both women and unborn children are supported to live and thrive – together.
Dawn McAvoy works for the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, and heads up the Both Lives Matter campaign co-founded by the Evangelical Alliance.