We’ve all long known that American attitudes to abortion are rather different than they are over here in Europe. We do indeed have people who are vociferously against the practice – I am one of them but this isn’t about me or my prejudices – but there’re many fewer. We really don’t have anything like the very large American pro-life movement and most certainly not the power they have in politics.
Well, OK. And it’s also pretty easy to work out why too. America is a much more religious country than anywhere in Europe. Most religions tending to be anti-abortion – as is true of any organisation which would like to recruit the next generation. If using a brand of gasoline were something largely inherited then Exxon would be against abortion among those who use Exxon gasoline too*.
But we then get to one of the great problems we’ve got in ruling the world. When does democracy triumph, that will of the people, and when doesn’t it? Because if the anti-abortionists are some significant portion of the US population then why shouldn’t their views be shaping the law on that very subject? What is it that makes this something where democracy doesn’t prevail?
The US is much more hostile to abortion than other countries in the developed world, with more Americans opposed to terminations than supportive, according to a survey of 23 of the world’s biggest countries. The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism survey, which was conducted before this week’s move in Alabama to impose the strictest abortion legislation anywhere in the US, found 46% of Americans said abortion was unacceptable, compared with 38% who found it acceptable. The poll puts the US on a par with developing countries such as India (48-37%) and Turkey (47-41%), but considerably out of step with America’s rich-nation peers.
46% is a significant plurality, close to a majority. Why shouldn’t American abortion law reflect their desires?
We know the answer to this too. Some things are rights, whereby the mob doesn’t get to tell us. Those things which are not rights are subject to that mob, that democracy.
Excellent. But that just puts us into the bind of deciding what is a right and what isn’t. And that’s where it all gets sticky. Because those shouting that abortion is a right are largely those who also shout that private property – say, how much the owners of a business can pay the manager they’ve hired, or even the labour they’re employing – should be subject to democracy, not property rights.
As PJ O’Rouke once pointed out, being against capital punishment and abortion, or in favour of both, is logically simple. But there’s a certain contortion that has to be gone through to oppose lethal injections on the grounds that the innocent might be executed but approve of the vacuum cleaner response to sex.
Still, this does leave us with that basic problem. How do we decide what is a right which is not subject to that democratic will? Yes, we know the American response – the Constitution. But what should be the underlying logic?
*This is to be cynical but not excessively so