The U.K.’s Conservative Government Defends Abortion

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(Photo: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

The British Parliament on Wednesday held a rare debate on abortion before shooting down a bill that attempted to curb access to the procedure by a vote of 368-118. Anyone looking for a U.S.-style drag out, hot tempered fight was surely disappointed.

First of all, Nadine Dorries, the conservative member who offered the legislation, was no Sarah Palin. She wasn’t even a Michele Bachmann. In fact, as she repeatedly reminded folks on the floor of the House of Commons, she says she’s pro-choice and even pro-life groups declined to back her bill.

That said, Dorries is what passes in the U.K. for a social conservative and the amendment, which attempted to divorce abortion counseling from abortion providers, scared Downing Street enough that they moved against the measure over the weekend and during the floor debate the Health minister pledged to do a study into the matter. “It was a real victory,” a smiling Dorries told the BBC after the overwhelming vote against her proposal.

Britain and all forms of its government have been solidly pro-choice for more than five decades. And there’s a palpable discomfort amongst politicians when the subject of religion comes up. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair wore his faith on his sleeve more so than any modern U.K. politician, and yet when asked about it by Vanity Fair magazine Alistair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, famously cut Blair off with the terse statement, “We don’t do God.”

For a country where the head of state is also the head of the church — the Queen – British politicians are markedly queasy about faith and the social agenda. That came through in today’s debate where, after several MPs tried to interrupt Dorries, the speaker tersely scolded: “Temperate language, moderation and humor are the basis of these debates.”

Why isn’t abortion more of an issue in a country that is 40% Catholic? Diane Abbott, the Shadow Health Minister explained to cheers: “The absence of a Fox News pumping out social propaganda 24 hours a day and British common sense.” Still, Dorries and her ilk aren’t going away and for all that the British conservatives looks a lot like American liberals, the abortion debate is an example of Prime Minister David Cameron’s big tent. Dorries accused Liberal Democrats, who share power with the Tories, of “blackmailing” Cameron into opposing her bill. There are pockets of social conservatism everywhere, which if woven together, can become powerful. Just ask Ronald Reagan.