12 jul 2022

Reproductive rights in America and the global trends - new blog by WVSA Vice-President Pippa Norris

The reversal of reproductive rights in America is contrary to global trends. Why? Compared with similar Western democracies, Republican voters are exceptionally socially conservative, religious and authoritarian.

Last week’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, ending the right to an abortion in the US, allowed many Red states to adopt some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Using new survey data, Pippa Norris looks at the extent to which these policies can be explained by the strategies of Republican lawmakers or by the values and beliefs of their party’s grassroots supporters. She finds that most Americans support the right to obtain a legal abortion. Compared to voters across almost all other Western democracies, however, Republican supporters prove exceptionally socially conservative, anti-abortion, and authoritarian in their values.

The past half century has seen growing liberalization of access to legal abortions worldwide. Global estimates report that abortion to save a woman’s life is allowed by law in 98 percent of countries. Post-industrial societies are usually least restrictive in allowing abortion on request, with different gestation periods.

By contrast, Republican-controlled states in the US are reversing this global trend by implementing criminal bans on legal access to all abortions. They join just two dozen countries around the world with similar draconian restrictions, such as Mauritania, Madagascar, Egypt, Iraq and Honduras. In adopting these policies, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama are now more restrictive of reproductive rights than deeply religious societies like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Indeed, some US states go further than medieval England; the first references to abortion in English law appeared in the 13th Century. The law followed Church teaching that abortion was acceptable until ‘quickening’, which, it was believed, was when the soul entered the fetus. The legal situation remained like this for centuries and the tradition was transferred to the American colonies. Historical records suggest that abortion prior to ‘quickening’ was an accepted practice by skilled midwives which only started to be criminalized in 1821 by a Connecticut law which sought to punish those providing abortion-inducing medicine.

Why the sudden rollback of reproductive rights in America two centuries later?

But why are many American states reversing track on reproductive rights, contrary to global trends towards greater liberalization? Obviously, it’s a complex story.

Party strategies and conservative leaders?

Many popular narratives focus on specific contingent events, party strategies, and leaders in the conservative movement responsible for tipping the balance in the court and state houses: most obviously, President Obama’s failure to prioritize codifying reproductive rights into federal law when Democrats had opportunities to do so; Congressional gridlock and the then Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell’s hard-ball strategy blocking debate about Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court; the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg allowing President Trump’s nomination to tip the balance in the Supreme Court; the role of dark money, partisan polarization and evangelical zeal fueling culture wars; and a broken judicial nomination process dominated by political theatre.

Structural arrangements systematically over-represent rural areas (and thus Republican social conservatives) in the Senate and Electoral College, while processes of partisan gerrymandering, primary elections, and partisan control of state electoral laws incentivizes candidates in both parties to run for elected office by appealing mainly to their ideological party base more than the median voter. Dobbs v. Jackson can be understood as the logical outcome of these constitutional flaws and dysfunctional inducements [...]  

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