Academic journal article
By Pike, Robert M.
Canadian Review of Sociology , Vol. 50, No. 1
DREW HALFMANN, Doctors and Demonstrators: How Political Institutions Shape Abortion Law in the United States, Britain, and Canada. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011, 354 p.
This book was picked for review just a few weeks before Republican congressman Todd Akin revived the American political debate over abortion by observing, with medieval precision, that women who have suffered "legitimate rape" experience biological responses that make pregnancy unlikely. While Akin was condemned by the Republican establishment for his views on the biology of rape, a strict anti-abortion provision has become part of the Republican platform. This stimulated the Toronto Globe and Mail to write a major folio article that points out that "a large class of assertive [anti-abortion] government crusaders" have helped enact "barriers by state legislatures and Congress [which] make it harder for U.S. women to get the procedure today than at any time since 1973." (1) Halfmann who is professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, recognizes this trend in the United States, compares it with increasing abortion access in Britain and Canada, and focuses centrally on the role of contrasting political institutions in the three countries in shaping past and present abortion laws.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, most wealthy democracies liberalized abortion laws dating from the nineteenth century. This was so in Britain, Canada, and the United States (countries which Halfmann considers to have many political, economic, and cultural similarities), but each of them established very different abortion policies. Britain and Canada maintained a bit of the nineteenth century by allowing abortions only if recommended by doctors or hospital committees on medical grounds, or, in Britain, economic necessity. With the contentious 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed early abortions on demand if a woman's doctor agreed to the procedure. Thus, a country with "its history of Puritanism" ... "had established the most liberal reform in the West" (p. 2). In addition, the means of funding the operation, and where carried out, varied as well. Canada only allowed abortions in public or nonprofit hospitals and funded by the state; in the United States the vast majority of abortions were carried out in single purpose clinics divorced from mainstream medicine and paid for by patient or family. About half the abortions in Britain followed the Canadian style and half the American.
These reforms of the "Long 1960s" (the late 1950s to the early 1970s) (2) were, in all three countries, attacked by pro-life movements, which sought to roll them back. In Canada and Britain, these movements "failed miserably." In the United States, as indicated above, "they were more successful" (p. 3). Halfmann suggests that it is facile to seek a direct explanation in the relative size of religious groups opposed to abortion, since about 49 percent of Americans are Catholic or Evangelical compared with 47 percent likewise in Canada; albeit Catholics are proportionately far more predominant in this country (p. 159, table 5-3). Rather, one needs to look at the role of a country's "political institutions," which are "the rules of the game" (p. 5) and form the context for individual and group actions. Some rules include those which establish multiple jurisdictions and the relations between them (federalism), the rules for electing presidents or members of legislatures, and rules for judicial review (p. 5). They also include "policy legacies" such as old-age pensions and the structure of medical care programs (not least their funding). Students of abortion policies, suggests Halfmann, seldom highlight political institutions, but treat them as almost natural occurrences. His aim is to "denaturalize institutions and expose the ways in which they bias politics and policy" (p. 5).
The introduction to Doctors and Demonstrators outlines its themes, concepts, and mode of analysis. …