When some left vs right American cultural battle made the news, friends abroad would either ask for an explanation from my husband and me, both known conservatives, or offer advice for our cultural wars. Almost always, the conversation was cordial but premised on an assumption that the American right held the extreme position.
Europeans made reasonable assumptions based on the tenor and headlines but rarely did the news or dinner party discussion cover the details. So few knew that American conservatives rarely held the extreme position. And American expats often endured some unexpected culture shock, especially concerning matters of race, sex, and immigration.
Abortion provides an excellent illustration of the problem. When the subject came up in the 2008 election, when Europe loved Obama (how times do change) and couldn’t stomach pro-life Palin, one friend advised that we could avoid all of our abortion drama if we allowed for reasonable rules making abortion legal during the first trimester with a committee of doctors to determine case-by-case availability of abortions in the second trimester, like they did in Denmark. Trying not to scoff at just how unreasonable those rules would sound to the American pro-choice movement, I asked for her opinion on later abortions. She was taken aback. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do that. Another time, Italians looked at me as if I was crazy when I asked about parental consent for minors. Of course a minor needed parental consent! Was I mad? And wasn’t I the American conservative?
Stories aside, we can easily compare the regulations.
For example, the Texas Legislature is in a second special session, occasioned by a filibuster of a 20 week limitation, addition of surgical clinic standards, and a requirement for admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Compare those loudly and proudly opposed regulations with abortion regulations in supposedly more liberal Europe. Twelve to 14 week limits are common, as are parental consent, multiple doctor approvals, and waiting periods.
American pro-lifers aren’t out of the world mainstream, our pro-choicers, the women wearing pink running shoes in Austin, are. In their eyes, safety limits access, and access is what counts. Safe, legal, and rare is just one of those Clinton platitudes that was empty even before becoming cliche.
Yet the assumption that the American right turns on the heat in our social debates, that will hold. I got the picture of a French pro-life protest at the top of this post from an article on the Daily Beast, “How France Became the Land of Free Abortions“. Nowhere does the article mention that “free” only applies to money, not availability. France has a 12 week limit.
Omit the facts and people make their own assumptions. American liberals assume more liberal Europe, and Europeans assume a more restrictive America even though that is rarely the case.