Will Northern Ireland now look to the Republic for abortion rights – or Trump’s America?

On the face of it, you’d think it’s a non- question. It just couldn’t  happen in Northern Ireland where the direction of travel is surely  the other way. But in the States, Roe v Wade, the essential abortion law of the whole country, is under unprecedented attack from the conservative evangelical right, coalescing round the Trump coalition.

Given the ideological split on the current Supreme Court, with five conservative justices to four liberal ones, President Donald Trump is one Supreme Court appointment away from shaping the Court for years and jeopardizing the legality of abortion.

The state of Iowa has just passed an anti-abortion law so extreme that it’s opposed by the “pro-life” mainstream. But what prompts such a surge to the right in the first place? It marks a shift of conservative strategy from thinking of rights as a left wing idea to embracing them. Will this ring bells inside  the DUP and among Conservative Catholics?.

But as fewer Americans identify as religious, a University of Cincinnati political researcher and author says conservative Christians are increasingly turning to the same playbook of their liberal counterparts to advance and defend priorities like free speech and religious liberty.

The result, says Andrew Lewis, an assistant professor of political science, is a growing conservative rights-based advocacy fueled by the politics of abortion.   Lewis, an expert in the intersection of American politics and religion, details this conservative baptism into political liberalism in his new book, “The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars.” The book, released by Cambridge University Press, chronicles the dramatic shift in America’s political landscape and culture wars over the past four decades as religious conservatives pivoted from defending cultural and biblical morality to instead building a political strategy based on asserting individual rights. This evolution, says Lewis, is monumental.

“Evangelicals have come to support radical protest and unfettered political speech in ways that would have been unthinkable only a generation or two ago,” Lewis writes. “The result is a refashioning of the American ‘culture wars.

It goes to the heart of Trump’s success- and not only in Iowa.

Iowa is just the latest battleground in the fight over access to abortions.

Mississippi’s Republican governor in March signed into law a bill banning abortion after 15 weeks with some exceptions, sparking an immediate court challenge by abortion rights advocates.

A similar court challenge is under way in Kentucky, which in April enacted a ban on a common abortion procedure from the 11th week of pregnancy.

The Iowa law requires any woman seeking an abortion to undergo an abdominal ultrasound to screen for a fetal heartbeat. If one is detected, healthcare providers are barred from performing an abortion.

Among the few exceptions are if the woman was raped or a victim of incest and has reported that to authorities.

New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse argues that a series of decisions in lower courts and state  legislatures that presents a new challenge to the conservative Supreme Court.

If it seems as if the noose is tightening around women’s access to abortion, that’s because it is.

Iowa just enacted a flagrantly unconstitutional law to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected — at about six weeks of pregnancy, before many women even know they’re pregnant. Mississippi recently banned abortion at 15 weeks, a point well before fetal viability and thus also clearly unconstitutional. A similar bill in Louisiana cleared the legislature and is on the governor’s desk.

And of course there’s the Trump administration’s plan to forbid medical professionals in clinics that receive federal money from providing their patients with pertinent and truthful information about abortion. This proposal, aimed at Planned Parenthood, is a clear suppression of free speech that flies in the face of the robust First Amendment that has evolved since the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, upheld an earlier abortion gag rule 27 years ago.

Some or all of these measures will reach the Supreme Court in due course. Indeed, part of the anti-abortion strategy is to serve up a diet of far-fetched cases: While there is no chance the Supreme Court will uphold the fetal heartbeat law, a defeat serves the greater purpose of keeping the base attentive to the court and motivated at the polls.

The Arkansas law, cynically entitled the Abortion-Inducing Drug Safety Act, would leave only one of the state’s three abortion clinics in business because the other two, operated by Planned Parenthood, offer only medication abortions.

Only willful blindness to the facts of the case could have led the appeals court to fault Judge Baker’s description of the burden the law would impose. She explained that closing Planned Parenthood’s clinic in Fayetteville, in the northwest corner of the state, would require women there to make a 380-mile round trip to the remaining clinic in Little Rock not once, but twice, because Arkansas requires an in-person meeting between doctors and their abortion patients, followed by a 48-hour waiting period.

 

“Inability to travel to the sole remaining clinic in the state will lead some women to take desperate measures, such as attempting to self-abort or seeking care from unsafe providers,” Judge Baker wrote.

How many women? How many angels on the head of a pin? “We are left with no concrete District Court findings,” the Eighth Circuit complained in sending the case back to Judge Baker for further factual development. We are left to guess by what magic the judge can satisfy the appeals court’s burning curiosity.

I see the case as presenting an additional challenge: the need for the justices to make clear to judges of the lower courts that, like it or not, the Constitution still protects access to abortion without the “undue burden” of state-created obstacles that serve no purpose other than to frustrate women in the exercise of their constitutional rights. And that need is urgent, given the Trump administration’s success in filling judicial vacancies with opponents of abortion, including one successful nominee to a federal appeals court who equated abortion and slavery as “the two greatest tragedies in our country,” and others who signal their opposition more discreetly.

The case of Iowa is so extreme that it has a produced a backlash  to the backlash, as the Guardian reports. That is where hope lies of  finding a new balance. But where will it lie?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London