What are you doing right?

Here’s a question for UK readers, and anyone else with an informed opinion (or just plain information) – why is the abortion issue so huge here and non-existent there?

I want to know so that whatever it is that you’re doing, we can do it too.

You don’t seem to have anything like an equivalent of the USCCB. You don’t seem to have monster bishops running everything. You have Anglican bishops meddling with things, I know that, but they’re mere mouse squeaks in comparison. What’s the deal with your Catholic bishops? Why are they so quiet?

Why aren’t there abortion protesters and “counselors” outside all NHS facilities that perform abortions? Why aren’t people always yammering about it? Why is it such a non-issue?


  1. Al Dente says

    Pure speculation on my part but I wonder if having Ireland next door has shown the British that the Catholic bishops are not nice people and should not be listened to on matters of morality.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    Canadian here, so not exactly what was asked for, but… I’m not so much sure that the British are different so much as the Americans are. The only other country I can think of that even comes close to the U.S.’s sheer breadth of splinter groups of Christianity would be Germany, and half of their splinter groups ended up moving to the U.S.

    In some ways, the lack of a state church in the U.S. made it a breeding ground for local ‘non-denominational’ churches, many of which seemed to start as pretty much as personality cults for various hellfire and brimstone preachers. Not that such things are limited to the U.S. by any stretch, but there were a lot of them there.

  3. screechymonkey says

    As is so often the case, it appears that race is a factor.

    Huh? I hear you say. I’ll try to find more detailed and recent links, but here’s a short summary explaining how what really drove the pro-life movement in the U.S. was when the major Protestant movements joined the cause.

    And why did they join the cause? Because they were ticked off about Supreme Court rulings that deprived whites-only religious schools of their tax exemptions.

  4. Andrew G. says

    There have been clinic protests and so on, just not so many or so widely reported. Also, the law isn’t quite so friendly to the protesters – people have been arrested for displaying gory signs.

  5. Shatterface says

    Its not just abortion, its also subjects like evolution which are almost entirely uncontroversial over here.

    Also, if you said you believed in angels you would rightly be laughed at.

  6. Suido says

    Australia has quite conservative and restrictive laws regarding abortion in some states, however they are de facto not enforced, and haven’t been for a while. Other states have legislated for full choice for women.

    I think it’s pretty well understood that the vast majority of people in the country would be very upset if it were to become a political issue again, and compulsory voting ensures this would be reflected in elections. However, both major parties have strong social conservative factions, and don’t want to alienate donors who would disapprove of pro-choice legislation.

    Hence, there is no political will at the federal level to change the status quo in either direction, and both major parties keep their social conservatives and progressives in line on the issue.

    I did see a guy protesting (presumably outside a clinic) last year in Brisbane. One man with a sign. I’ve heard other cities have more protesters, but it’s very much a non-issue for most people.

  7. Malachite says

    We have Catholic bishops? ‘Sppose we must.
    I think the secret is that we’re just not very religious, overall.
    Even a recent Prime Minister of ours was religious but he and his government were notorious for not doing God. The current one is not averse to saying religious things but is getting mildly scoffed at.

  8. screechymonkey says

    Also, if you said you believed in angels you would rightly be laughed at.

    Whereas in the United States, a Supreme Court justice just went on-record declaring his belief in the devil. And no, not in a metaphorical sense.

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    There are attempts to introduce or import anti-abortion panics, but none have been very successful.
    The fact that hostility to abortion is associated with roman catholicism, which is regarded as foreign- especially Irish- and still historically disapproved-of is probably important. Britain is still very protestant in philosophically and in attitude and there’s a view that if the papists oppose it it can’t be bad..

  10. daviddurant says

    We do have anti abortion groups here – primarily Life : http://lifecharity.org.uk/

    While there is a history of protest in the UK all of the larger, and certainly all of the longer term, protest movements have been on the more liberal side of politics. There’s a strong history of actual individual liberty here – unlike the American system of “individual rights as long as they agree with ours”.

    A sharp decline in religious affiliation (especially Protestantism) probably helps too : http://goo.gl/LD11d1

    The British Social Attitudes Survey always makes great reading : http://www.bsa-31.natcen.ac.uk/

  11. opposablethumbs says

    My guess would be that it may have something to do with the fact that the proportion of the population that is religious is so much smaller here – and also because loudly proclaiming your religion/religious convictions in public is regarded as an embarrassment, rather un-British and really not quite the thing (in comparison with the US, anyway – at least, that’s my impression).

    We very certainly do have our very own religious fanatics, and there certainly are anti-choicers around – and religion certainly gets a lot of undeserved kow-towing in the media etc. – but perhaps the fundagelicals remain more marginalised because they lack the protective camouflage and tacit support of an overwhelmingly religious populace? I don’t know, it’s just a thought.

    I’d be very interested to see what anyone else thinks!

  12. AsqJames says

    Well I’d start by saying abortion is not a non-issue for many women in the UK.

    Only 35 abortions took place in Northern Ireland in 2012. The nation’s draconian ban on abortions, which carries a life sentence for transgressors, permits scarce exceptions. No allowance is made for women carrying babies with fatal foetus abnormalities. Nor do the authorities relent simply because a woman has become pregnant by, say, rape or incest.

    Technically the only exceptions are to save a woman’s life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. Whether that sounds reasonable or still too illiberal, in reality these so-called exemptions to the rule are granted at a pitifully low rate.

    The British Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland; instead the country clings to an archaic 1861 law regarding Offences Against the Person to maintain its current outright ban.

    Source (emphasis mine).

    We frequently forget that, often on different issues and to a different extent, our constitution & laws echo the US state/federal split to some extent. So frequently in fact that it seems absurd to castigate foreigners for making the same mistake. With that in mind it might be worth pointing out that although the abortion issue is highly contentious at the federal level, it seems not to be (nor in imminent danger of becoming so) in some of the individual states.

    I’m not sure it’s useful to ask what we’re doing in the UK (or at least that part of it not still governed by mid 19th century legislation) that you are not doing in the US. Maybe we need a social historian to tell us how the bible belt became the bible belt (and re-hash for the squillianth time the roots and consequences of Ireland’s religious squabbles) and contrast that with the North Eastern US (and mainland Britain)?

  13. karmacat says

    I read on one site (I have to look it up again to figure out which one) that the difference between Europe and the US is that pro-choice laws were promoted through the legislature rather than the court with Roe v Wade. The speculation is that the supreme court led to a backlash because it was seen as though the issue was decided only by a few people. I would say that the supreme court often follows public opinion, especially if you look at how decisions have changed about slavery and civil rights and even evolution. I think there is a strong need in the US to identify with one group or another. Maybe because it is a large country. This leads to sharp divisions on certain issues.

    I did read that in the UK, a women has to get 2 doctors to sign off on her having an abortion. Is this still true?

  14. screechymonkey says


    Canada’s abortion law was also struck down by its Supreme Court, in 1988, but that didn’t lead to a massive mobilization on the issue. To this day, there’s still no federal law restricting it at all, in any trimester.

    And the article I linked above suggests that even Roe v. Wade didn’t lead to a massive reaction in the U.S.; it was at least five years later before it really began to emerge as a political issue.

  15. karmacat says

    Hmm. I need to read comments more carefully. Actually, Canada has a lot of similarities in some ways – both are large countries. And I understand there are some very religious areas. I did read how the conservative movement was fueled by racism. I wonder if some of it was also fueled by the ERA movement. I read that Falwell said he decided to get involved in politics because of the possible ERA amendment. It wasn’t about religion and abortion as one would expect.

  16. quixote says

    I’m not living in the UK now, although I have in the past. I’ve also lived in the Netherlands and Germany. None of them have the religiosity and determined know-nothingness of the US of A. I’ve also rarely met people there hanging on to their livelihoods by a thread, whereas here I meet them all the time, including among my colleagues.

    I remember reading somewhere that religion loses importance as countries gain good social safety nets.

    It makes sense to me that the fearfulness of life here leads some people to try to find safety in churches. And if forced pregnancy is an article of faith required for membership in the tribe, then given the way people are, there’ll be hordes of them screaming for it.

    It may be the inequality, yet again, oozing out in one more manifestation.

  17. says

    Abortion was introduced by a Private Members Bill, a government consultation and a free vote in the House of Commons. In short, experts had their say, the government stepped back and the MPs voted their conscience. A similar procedure (though very unusual in Parliamentary systems) was followed for other ethical issues such as the abolition of capital punishment.

    Other commenters have also correctly pointed to the distinctively Anglican, largely unobservant Christian flavour of English public life during the period in which abortion was introduced. England isn’t all of the UK, but it’s by far the most populous part of the UK and tends to dominate Westminster.

    The religious crazies that are so common in US politics don’t seem to have much political power here, I’m very relieved to say. This is probably because they’re not as common as in the United States, in my experience. We really do tend to look at people funny if they take religion seriously.

  18. nymeria says

    Technically, in order to have an abortion two doctors must state a reason for the abortion on a form. That reason is nearly always “the pregnancy is a threat to the (mental) health of the mother”. This is because your pregnant and asking for an abortion, and therefore your mental wellbeing will probably be badly affected by being forced to give birth and become a parent.
    In the UK people are less religious in general, so there are not as many pro lifers. Abortion is seen as a more routine healthcare procedure, which people should have the right to access for free at point of use.

  19. Minnow says

    It helps to have an established church. When the churchmen are so far within the establishment, they see the benefits of keeping the boat nice and steady, the allure of back room whispering rather than pulpit thundering.

    And the British on the whole are a lot more conformist than Americans. They tend to have a more cynical idea about the possibilities of political freedom that they mistake for irony in the usual self-flattering way.

  20. Dunc says

    Overt, public religiosity hasn’t really been the done thing in Britain since that whole ghastly mess with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. We’ve had our phase of religiously-dominated government, pretty much nobody liked it, almost everybody was glad to see the back of it, and the awful memory of it still lurks somewhere in the civic consciousness.

    Plus, we exported most of our religious crazies to the US. Sorry about that…

  21. Arnie says

    screechymonkey (4),
    your “but here’s a short summary” is lacking the link.

  22. voriank says

    “What are you doing right?”

    Less religion. We’re probably slightly more likely to laugh at our preachers than treat them as policy experts.

    But – this is not true always, and may not last forever. There’s a small number of evangelicals that want to import US-style “bible law” ideas, and I’d say a larger number of conservatives that seem to look at culture-war rhetoric as an example to follow. Our religionist politicians are joining their US friends in pretending anti-abortion campaigners are “counsellors” – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/feb/24/anti-abortion-pregnancy-counselling-mps – as well as sometimes trying to chisel away at time limits for abortion and complaining about doctors routinely approving abortions.

    These tactics aren’t working so far, but I think the results of anti-abortion wedge-driving in the US will encourage our own religionists to persist. They may be gaining ground, too – when I hear the likes of Cameron and Pickles’ “christian nation” crap, I worry whatever it is the US is doing wrong, we’re in danger of doing more.

  23. voriank says

    Also – with the NHS, churches don’t get to take over our hospitals. Baffling that the US got to the point of letting superstitious bigots buy the power to write instructions for doctors.

  24. Pen says

    Factors which may contribute are:

    1) the relatively high level of non-religiousness in all it’s forms. Which means people also don’t believe in afterlives or souls (personhoods) and other concepts which are underlying US arguments for abortion.

    2) a tendency to be very reluctant to interfere in other people’s private affairs – one you note every time you complain about us not being pro-active enough about FGM or something else you disapprove of.

    3) We are more secular and actively dislike public expressions of religion and many people will treat them with open scorn and contempt. It’s probable that anyone behaving in that way would attract quite a lot of hostile argument to themselves from passersby.

    4) the fact that healthcare facilities are all packaged together, to that the abortion often takes place in the same building as the kidney dialysis or at least the full-term births. Contraception is obtained from the same GP who treats flu. It would be impossible to identify women going for abortion if you wanted to. Unfortunately, it’s possible for some young and vulnerable people to get detached from that system – see below:

    Things aren’t all rosy though because fake ‘crisis pregnancy’ centers are opening their doors and advertising publicly. I pity the poor woman/girl who is feeling vulnerable enough or sufficiently lacking in gumption to walk through their doors.

  25. Callinectes says

    My housemate at university was Christian, and abortion came up in a pub discussion once. He said that although he is morally opposed to abortion itself, he knows that the reality for women if abortion was not available would be unacceptably worse, particularly given the deadly lengths some will go to take matters into their own hands.

    So yeah. He, for one, knew the score. I don’t know how common this view is, though. I’m peripherally involved with a local Christian youth group via a friend who invites me to their game nights, and it’s not exactly an easy subject to bring up under those circumstances.

  26. feedmybrain says

    Pen at 27 beat me to it! We don’t have abortion specific clinics so potential protestors don’t know who to ‘counsel’.
    There was a minister arguing for a reduction from 24-20 weeks gestation not so long ago but I forget her name, I’m pretty sure she was open about it being a wedge strategy too. The bishops in the house of lords consistently vote against any law changes that they see as contradicting their dogma, eg. gay age of consent, gay marriage come to mind.
    I see these people being in a minority though. Occasionally some hitherto unknown preacher will get some airtime by saying something outrageously backwards about a progressive issue whilst tge issue is in the public consciousness but I see them presented as a curiosity whereas in America I get the impression they’d be taken seriously by the press.

  27. voriank says

    “There was a minister arguing for a reduction from 24-20 weeks gestation”

    That was Dorries, pushing the “fetal pain” myth popular with her co-religionists in the US: http://www.abortionreview.org/index.php/site/article/92/

    I’d say Dorries’ religion-driven politics is one of the factors that has kept her politically marginalised – which I guess is another way we differ from the US.

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