Published July 19, 2022
When the U.S. Supreme Court announced in late June that Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of sweeping nationwide abortion rights would be overturned, there was a predictable backlash from leaders around the globe. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called it “One of the darkest days for women’s rights in my lifetime,” while French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “Abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected.” More recently, the European Parliament voted symbolically to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision, voting by a margin of 324-155. But why should this chorus of condemnation be predictable, especially emanating from Europe? After all, as many commentators have observed, the effect of Dobbs will likely be to return abortion law in the United States to a condition still somewhat more liberal than most of Europe.
Consider: In Macron’s own France, the law only recognizes abortion as “a fundamental right for all women” up through 12 weeks of pregnancy (except in the case of a medical emergency)—three weeks earlier than the Mississippi law that prompted the Dobbs lawsuit. Not only that, but any woman seeking an abortion must go through counseling and a minimum one-week waiting period after expressing her desire to terminate the pregnancy. Every effort must be made to secure parental consent if the young woman is a minor. Even in Sturgeon’s more permissive U.K., abortion is ordinarily available only up to 24 weeks and at least requires the agreement of two doctors that carrying the baby to term would pose a serious mental health risk. Contrast this with a state like Oregon, where any pregnant mother can abort right up until birth, without any waiting period or parental notification.
Throughout Europe, abortion restrictions vary widely, determined by the values of voters within each country. Andorra and Malta, for instance, do not allow abortion at all, while Poland recently passed near-total protection for the unborn. Most countries have policies similar to those of France, with a few closer to the more liberal end of the spectrum represented by the U.K. A post-Dobbs America will look fairly similar in the near term (albeit with extreme outliers like Oregon and New York): Voters in very conservative states will pass Malta- or Poland-like protections, while many others will compromise with restrictions around the first or second trimester, together with waiting periods or parental consent requirements. For pro-life advocates, this prospect may be somewhat deflating, but it should, one would think, soothe the frayed nerves of abortion advocates around the world. Why then the outrage?
A closer look at pro-abortion rhetoric holds the answer. For progressives, after all, as their name suggests, what matters most is not location but trajectory. What if abortion laws in America remain pretty liberal by global standards? What matters—what chafes the progressive’s soul and blows the progressive’s mind—is that some laws are now less liberal than they were last year. This flies in the face of the story that progressives have told themselves for generations. In their worldview, history only flows in one direction, the direction of greater and greater individual autonomy. “Rights” (redefined by progressives as mere self-determination, with no relation to the old-fashioned idea of right and wrong) are to be created, never corrected. When the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision, for many progressives it was as if history had suddenly ground to a halt and reversed, as if the sun itself had gone backward in the sky.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke for many in lamenting, “I think it’s a pretty big step backwards”—while Axios expressed its astonishment that the United States could become such a “global outlier” by being one of only four countries to make abortion laws stricter in the past 25 years. The same consternation that any modern country could ever take a “right” away was on display throughout Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan’s dissent to the Dobbs decision. “Throughout our history, the sphere of protected liberty has expanded, bringing in individuals formerly excluded,” they write, basing their whole theory of constitutional interpretation on this premise. The 14th Amendment must be allowed to keep on expanding in meaning because that’s simply how history works. To imagine otherwise would be like imagining water flowing uphill. “After today,” they lament, “young women will come of age with fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers had.”
Startled by the recognition that rights may not keep automatically expanding of their own accord, progressives are likely to resort to increasingly radical and increasingly anti-democratic measures (like the proposal to add abortion to the European Charter of Human Rights). Their goal will be to put the train of history back on track toward limitless autonomy. To defeat the left, we will have to defy an entire social imaginary of one-way “progress.”
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.
Image: William Murphy on Unsplash