The rest of the world is inclined to feel a little bemused

by the furore in the United States over abortion, but

it should not be. Fundamental issues of principle are

at stake which have universal application. The US, in

turn, could do worse than to look elsewhere for insights that

could light the way to a compromise solution. With the

overturning by the Supreme Court of the Roe versus Wade

judgment, made by the same court in 1973, conservative states

are moving to impose prohibitions on legal abortion; liberal

states are likely to loosen restrictions. It has triggered an

almighty row, which could have a decisive impact on the

outcome of forthcoming elections, including the presidential

race in 2024.


Many are alarmed and dismayed by the removal of what they

had come to think was almost a definition of American

womanhood. They believed that women had the “right to

choose”, guaranteed by the US Constitution, whether to remain

pregnant or to terminate their pregnancy. Yet this is not a right

that is universally recognised. Elsewhere, access to abortion is

more often seen as a concession, in the name of compassion, to

relieve women in stressful circumstances. Across the continent

of Europe, for instance, with exceptions such as Poland and

Malta, abortion has been legalised up to about the twelfth week

of pregnancy. The consensus is remarkable: from Belgium to

Slovakia, 14 countries allow abortion up to 12 weeks, and most

of the others allow it from 10 to 15. Most jurisdictions also allow

rare exceptions to the rule.


The US, which normally sees itself among mainstream

Western nations, could learn from these compromises, which

often reflect the public will as expressed in

lengthy democratic debate. In the US, the

“rights” argument has been deployed on both

sides, with the “right to choose” opposed to “the

right to life”. The argument over Roe v. Wade

shows the limitations of a rights-based debate.

While codes of human rights are an important

element in building civilised societies, they can

lead to the clash of all-or-nothing absolutes

that are almost impossible to resolve.


In the Irish abortion referendum four

years ago, two-thirds of the electorate

voted to repeal the 1983 constitutional amendment that

had guaranteed the right to life of the unborn, making

abortion illegal unless the pregnancy was life-threatening.

The Irish parliament then enacted a 12-week limit on legal

abortions, much influenced by other European examples,

and this remains the law today. This compromise emerged

from a process called a Citizens’ Assembly, where 99 ordinary

citizens from all walks of life and various religious

persuasions had sifted the evidence and arguments, and

framed a consensus. The (English) Electoral Reform Society

recommended the Irish Citizens’ Assembly model for

resolving difficult moral and political dilemmas in the United

Kingdom. There are similar elements in the way the Good

Friday Agreement was designed to operate in Northern

Ireland, forcing those with opposing views to talk to each

other, and more importantly, listen to each other. It ends the

“all or nothing”, “winner takes all” approach, which can be the

bugbear of democratic politics everywhere.

The right to life enshrines the fundamental truth that all

human life is sacred and deserves respect at every stage of a

pregnancy. And the right to choose defends the bodily

autonomy of women, who should not be coerced into childbearing

against their settled will and regardless of the

consequences. The views of the Catholic Church in Ireland

were not ignored by the Citizens’ Assembly, but nor were they

decisive. Since the referendum, the Church has placed its

emphasis – as is also happening in the United States – on

helping women to keep their children rather than abort them.

This recognises that one of the principal drivers of abortion is

poverty – lack of income, poor housing, low pay, limited access

to health facilities and so on.


A fair and just society would be one in which abortion was

never necessary for a woman’s survival or for her ability to care

for her children. And the US is shamefully inadequate in

terms of affordable healthcare, with rates of infant and

maternal mortality closer to what would be expected in the

poorest parts of the world. It is a very unequal society with

race a major factor in the divisions: a high proportion of those

women who seek abortion are African American.


Religion played a major part in the campaign against

Roe v. Wade, but it was not the Catholic Church that

led the way. This is one of the more disturbing aspects

of the situation now unfolding in the United States.

There is a close correlation between the states now moving

towards highly restrictive abortion legislation and those most

emphatically against any measures to control the ownership of

guns. These states are largely Republican, though often with

Democrat-controlled big cities. They are where

support for former President Donald Trump was

and is strongest; where movements like “Make

America Great Again” are most at home; and where

many believe that the 2020 presidential election

was stolen and that Trump was the true victor and

that he, not Joe Biden, should be in the White

House. They are also – and this is the most striking

feature in this phenomenon – home to the brand of

fundamentalist, creationist conservative

evangelicalism that is peculiarly American. This

ideology sees the US as having a God-given mission

to be the Scriptural “city on the hill”, a beacon of

righteousness. Being anti-abortion fits neatly into this ideology,

but it is fundamentally about something else: the ideology,

almost a religion in itself, of American exceptionalism.

American Catholicism has to be careful not to be tainted by it.

Roe v. Wade always was an unsafe judgment, hanging by a

logical string of legal arguments stretched to breaking point.

It moved from the 14th amendment, which was introduced

to force states in the South to grant voting rights to newly

freed slaves, to a doctrine of privacy, which was not obviously

the plain meaning of the words, to a right to abortion up to

foetal viability which, the court unexpectedly found, is

implied in the right to privacy. Women’s rights campaigners

in the US did not realise how precarious Roe v. Wade was

until too late. Had they worked to build a democratic

consensus for a 12-week compromise along mainstream

European lines, they might well have succeeded by now.

Instead, in the all-or-nothing logic of the abortion debate as

they themselves defined it, they went for all and may have

got nothing.