Blog: Roe v. Wade and Brexit: the long march through the institutions – TheArticle

In 1973, the US Supreme Court permitted abortion via its landmark ruling Roe v Wade. It was a big rejection of religious fundamentalism. The judgement asserted that the US Constitution, as interpreted by the court, was superior to the beliefs of many Americans, who regarded a woman deciding to terminate her pregnancy as a denial of religious belief and, in effect, the killing of a future citizen.

In 1973 Britain became more closely associated with Continental Europe. MPs accepted common rules with other European nations in many areas previously regarded as considered the province of national sovereignty. Parliament’s decision was confirmed by a referendum in 1975.

In the past such major national decisions, taken in Britain’s case by the House of Commons or in the federal US by the Supreme Court which earlier had ended racist segregation imposed at state level, were accepted as settling the question. But in both countries the landmark decisions of 1973 were never fully accepted by significant political groups within both nations.

In Britain, many activists and MPs in the Labour Party strongly opposed both the 1973 decision in the Commons on joining Europe and its confirmation in a referendum. The Labour Party pledged a Brexit (the word was not invented then) referendum in its 1983 election manifesto. Even Tony Blair put up posters in his new Sedgefield constitutency saying if he and Labour MPs were elected, Britain would leave the European Economic Community (as it then was).

The cause was taken up after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union. It also confirmed the push by Margaret Thatcher to abolish national vetoes in more areas of national sovereignty. She had campaigned for Brussels to have power to impose a liberal single market in place of the patchwork of nationally determined economies, although she later came to regret the loss of political sovereignty that followed. She also strongly supported the enlargement of Europe to take in poor countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece.

But now the forces opposing Europe that has faded in Labour were growing in strength within the Conservative Party. Bill Cash became their champion. He threatened to sue me in 1997 when I said in the Commons that he wanted the UK to leave the EU.

I was protected by parliamentary privilege but soon enough Cash’s reticence on being associated with leaving the EU faded. Brexit became associated with the Tories, not the Labour Party. This culminated in 2020 in a new Treaty with 27 other European nations, which seriously reduced the right of British citizens and businesses to have the access to the continent they had enjoyed since 1973.

In the United States, various forces also rejected the 1973 decision permitting American women to control their bodies. Other countries, including strongly Catholic nations like Italy and Ireland, have recently agreed that their female citizens, not the church or male legislators, should decide the issue of pregnancy termination.

In America of course the Catholic Church continued its opposition. There were ugly violent scenes outside some medical facilities which allowed women to control their fertility, but on the whole there was no majority in Congress or in the Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

However anti-abortion campaigners, like anti-European campaigners, never gave up. They focused on persuading conservatives on the right of politics and the media to decide that the 1973 decisions needed to be reversed.

Their breakthrough year was 2016 when a new populist referendum campaign secured support of 37% of the UK’s electorate to support leaving the EU. Labour under its life-long anti-EU leader, Jeremy Corbyn was in no position to oppose the anti-EU steamroller driven by two charismatic, even demagogic politicians, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

In 2016, America elected Donald Trump, a non-religious quasi-pagan demagogue as President. During his campaign Trump had said women who ended pregnancies should “face some sort of punishment”.

He ensured that any new nominations to the Supreme Court of judges who had risen through the highly politicised ranks of US judicial party electoral appointments were hostile to women’s right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term.

Now both decisions have been made. Britain is outside Europe and it seems certain the US Supreme Court will reverse Roe v Wade and allow states to impose bans or severe limits on women’s fertility rights.

Yet does the story end there? Britain remains more divided than ever on leaving Europe. All opinion polls show a majority now regretting the decision and that if a new referendum were to be held, the decision would be to restore the rights of British people and businesses to live, work, retire or do business on the Continent, without negotiating impenetrable barriers to other Europeans.

The uproar from women in the United States at the draft ruling from a 72-year-old Catholic man nominated by George W. Bush to the Supreme Court shows this win for the Right will not go unchallenged.

As it is, only about half of US states will legislate to remove full abortion rights so women in America can simply travel to another state to have an abortion, much as Irish women came to Britain when Irish politicians refused for decades to face down the Catholic Church.

As US politicians try and stop Mexicans crossing the frontier into America, American women will head south to avail themselves of the Mexican Supreme Court’s unanimous decision last year ruling that penalising abortion is unconstitutional.

Similarly, there is a sullen acceptance in Britain that for the time being Brexit has to be lived with. The Labour Party’s current inexperienced leadership walks in terror of ever using the word Europe.

But business is clamouring for some moderation of the ultra-hard Brexit decided by Boris Johnson, which is far removed from the offer of 2016. With Covid travel restrictions ended UK citizens will discover for themselves that living or retiring in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy or Greece has become much more difficult as a result of the hard Brexit we have opted for.

So it may be that although both anti-European and anti-abortion campaigners may rejoice at the reversal of half a century of being in Europe for the UK and women controlling their fertility for the US, before long their wins may seem to be hollow.

In both countries pragmatic solutions will emerge that temper the initial abruptness and drama of both Brexit and the removal of this core right for women across the Atlantic.


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