The United States is proud of its traditions of democracy. Open and free elections. Freedom of speech, of the press, of the right to assemble.
Yet, when it comes to the health of democracy in America, some of our close relatives in the family of nations are certainly worried about us. And with reason.
The European Parliament last week voted to condemn the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning 50 years of guaranteed abortion rights. Members of that body care because they know the decay of democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere. Which is why the European Union exists, to protect democracy and human rights across borders, because authoritarianism is contagious.
Actions of those in power in Utah would suggest concern expressed by some of our sister democracies is well-founded.
Utah’s so-called trigger law, temporarily suspended while the state courts have a look, basically ended the right to abortion here if and when the U.S. Supreme Court set aside Roe vs. Wade. The law was passed when there was little hope that such a thing would ever occur, so it is a mess of unclear and unworkable provisions.
Among the worst of those is the requirement that for a person to claim the right under the law to have an abortion when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, the attending physician has to confirm that the offense was reported to law enforcement.
That requirement raises a thicket of problems. It ignores the fact that many, probably most, women don’t report sexual assault out of the very realistic fear that the system won’t listen to them and won’t prosecute the offender. It puts women in danger of further abuse at the hands or their victimizer. It strengthens the fiction that women frequently make false accusations of assault, because now it may be the only legal way to get an abortion. It doesn’t give doctors a specific way to show that they have fulfilled the requirement.
Not that any member of the Legislature’s Republican supermajority cares. They are just happy that all the burden of intelligent reproduction has been dumped on women, about whom they show little, if any, concern.
This was demonstrated in clear, if brutal, fashion when Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble responded curtly to a heartfelt outreach from a frightened constituent who, in an email, respectfully asked what impact the new law would have on the lives and rights of Utah women.
Bramble’s almost immediate response: “The explanation is that the ‘trigger law’ will stop the barbaric slaughter of innocent unborn children.”
The senator’s answer showed neither the decency nor the wisdom that should be required to hold public office in a democracy. Abortion is not the “slaughter of innocent unborn children,” and anyone who thinks it is has absolutely zero understanding of biology.
And Bramble’s angry insistence to a Tribune reporter that he had answered his constituent’s question was blatantly false. She wanted to know what would happen to women, not to zygotes and embryos and clumps of cells, and what other rights and protections female Utahns might lose.
In a great many democratic nations, particularly in parliamentary systems, Bramble’s outburst would lead to calls for his resignation, calls which might be backed up by members of his own party and be successful. (See Johnson, Boris.)
But American politicians never developed the parliamentary habit of resigning on principle or as an act of contrition. Especially in a one-party state such as Utah, politicians are too firmly ensconced in their positions to worry about what the people want.
Another example of our undemocratic tendencies is the immovable resistance in Congress and the Utah Legislature to common-sense gun safety regulations that have the support of clear majorities of the people. Our lawmakers also take pride in turning their backs on our desires and needs including Medicaid expansion, medical cannabis and an end to partisan gerrymandering.
This is the kind of behavior that led one member of the European Parliament, a particularly scruffy Irishman called Mick Wallace, to a more democratic outburst on the floor of that august body.
“A woman’s right to choose is a human right.” Wallace rightly proclaimed. “Why are we so quiet about challenging the U.S. when they threaten human rights?”
Wallace noted the United States spends more than the rest of the world combined on weapons of war, yet claims that it can’t afford to feed or educate its children or provide health care to its people.
“What is democracy anyway?” Wallace asked. “Is it having a vote every four or five years? No, it’s not. It’s your people having a say in the society they live in. And most of the American people have no say in the society they’re living in.”
“The Americans couldn’t spell democracy,” Wallace said.
Maybe. But we sure can spell Republican.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, can spell “democracy.” But can’t always spell “parliament.”