What Is it With Americans and Abortion?


In Britain, one ought not to be earnest on things about which one is clueless. Indeed, even excellent understanding combined with earnestness (sometimes called “enthusiasm”) does not go down well. Margaret Thatcher—despite being an original political thinker in her own right—often worried her advisors with her earnestness and thus famously resorted to Monty Python’s ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch during the 1990 Conservative Party conference.

Nowhere is British apprehension of excessive political earnestness greater than when Americans start banging on about abortion. We have all experienced it: typically, the culprit is an American student studying abroad over here. If the abortion issue is raised over supper or in the pub, British people often start backing away slowly. I have even witnessed the unimaginable in response to abortion talk: British women voluntarily changing the subject to football, expressing a new and captivating interest in the fortunes of Arsenal or Liverpool. Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that there is a gulf between British and American attitudes towards abortion (Brits are much more in favour).

It’s even worse when the abortion earnestness comes via one wing or another of the US Congress. And it is information like the following that leads this Brit to leave her hypothetical American interlocutor propping the bar up alone:

But the bill has caused several problems for the Republican Party at a time when it desperately needs to reach out to women voters. The GOP lawmakers who advanced the bill out of the Judiciary Committee and unanimously rejected exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother were all men. And during the debate over the rape exception, Franks said “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy [is] very low,” resurrecting an incorrect claim made by former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.).

Todd Akin’s surprising scientific ignorance was so astonishing it made its way across the Pond, along with the BBC’s usual collection of congressional oddities: creationism, not being able to locate Iraq on a map, and “fanny-packs” (do not use this expression in Britain). Soon enough, it had a laugh track added. The closest Britain has to Akin is Nadine Dorries (she is nowhere near as dim), and when she raised abortion in the Commons, this is what David Cameron did to her:

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Yes, it is cruel, and I accept that British humour is often cruel in a way American humour–more obvious, but also more genial—is not. However, that doesn’t get away from the fact that not a few members of the US legislature are ignorant of basic science, geography, and history in a way that a former shop steward who left school at 15 and found his way into the House of Commons via the trade union movement never was.

There may be a debate to be had about abortion rights (like most Brits, I can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there), but it is not possible to have any debate, about anything, while mired in earnestly maintained ignorance.