In the last two weeks, Mitt Romney has attacked President Obama on the issue of abortion, calling for federal de-funding of Planned Parenthood and arguing that religiously affiliated hospitals should not be required to provide free contraception (which he called “abortive pills”) to their employees. Meanwhile, Romney has repeatedly defended himself against claims by Newt Gingrich and the surging Rick Santorum that he is “pro-abortion.” Abortion is once again center stage in presidential politics, as it has been, off and on, for the last thirty years. This may seem only natural for an issue that speaks to the deepest of human values, but in fact, abortion lies at the margins of politics in most other rich countries. Why are things so different here?
A common explanation is our culture: Americans are among the most religious people in the West, and with our history of Puritanism, our political discourse has a distinctly moral tone. But this explanation only goes so far: Britain and Canada, our closest cultural neighbors, also have sizable anti-abortion movements and remarkably similar public attitudes toward abortion, yet the issue is rarely mentioned in Parliament or on the campaign trail. As one British legislator jokes, abortion is only an election issue when a gynecologist runs against a priest.
Abortion holds a central place in our politics not just because of our culture, but because of our political institutions:
Our uniquely powerful Supreme Court can act contrary to majority opinion. At the end of the 1960s, Britain, Canada, and the United States all made abortions more widely available, but while Parliament enacted the British and Canadian reforms, the Supreme Court handed down the American one. The Justices, appointed for life, were less attuned to public opinion than elected legislators, and as a result they went further than the public and most legislators desired, defining abortion as a ?privacy right? and allowing abortions ?on request.? By contrast, the British and Canadian parliaments were more sensitive to public and medical opinion, and as a result defined abortion as a ?health right? and allowed abortions only when doctors said they were ?medically necessary.? Not only was the American reform broader and more controversial than those in the other countries, but because it was made by non-elected officials, it had less democratic legitimacy. Abortion opponents claimed that the Court had usurped the power of legislatures. (Canada?s Supreme Court eventually ruled on abortion as well, but left ultimate authority over the issue with Parliament).
Our political parties offer special power to social movements. In all three countries, large social movements battled over abortion, but only the American movements succeeded in moving the issue onto party and electoral agendas. In all three countries, party leaders initially tried to keep abortion off the agenda, preferring to focus on the economic issues that held their parties together rather than the social ones that divided them. This was easy for powerful British and Canadian party leaders who chose and funded party nominees, wrote campaign platforms, and initiated most legislation. In the United States, by contrast, party leaders had less power and social movements had more.
Our decentralized political system contains hundreds of battlegrounds. The American political system is divided into multiple levels and branches of government. Britain and Canada either do not have these divisions, or they are less consequential, and as a result, abortion debates are confined mainly to the national Parliament. In the United States, however, presidents, governors, mayors, state and federal legislators, judges, city councils, and even school board members spend thousands of hours debating abortion each year. The federal courts set the broad parameters of abortion law, but state and federal legislatures work out many of the details, and the courts must revisit the issue as new laws come into conflict with court rulings. This gives abortion movements a plethora of opportunities to do battle, and no battle ever settles the war because other battlefields are waiting.
The abortion issue remains a source of perpetual conflict not just because of what Americans believe, but because of the way our political system is organized. And neither the system nor the intensity of the conflict is likely to change soon.