Signs of Change

NR’s editors have already constructed a barricade here  against the attempt by the ACLU via lawsuit to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. As the editorial noted, there is never a cease-fire in the culture war because, even when the cultural traditionalists disappear for some R and R, the other side seeks to advance its position both by direct assaults and by flanking or tunneling maneuvers. The editors might also have noted that the battleground is world-wide. An even wider assault on Christian consciences than the ACLU’s was mounted this week in Europe when a Portuguese socialist MEP proposed a motion — the Estrela Report named after the MEP — in the European parliament on sexual and reproductive health. Among many other provisions, the Estrela report sought to “monitor and regulate” the right of conscientious objection on the part of Christian doctors and nurses to performing abortions.

Though it reluctantly conceded that this exercise of conscientious objection was an individual right, it declared that it was not a “collective” one or the basis for a collective policy. Translated into everyday language, this was the first step to doing exactly what the ACLU lawsuit attempts: namely, make it unlawful for Catholic hospitals to refuse to perform abortions as a matter of policy.

In the European case this was two sorts of outflanking maneuvers in one. The first maneuver was an attempt to establish in various practical ways that abortion is a human right under international law (e.g., forbidding national governments from penalizing it.) The second was an end run around the EU’s “subsidiarity” rule which holds that laws on abortion (and most other provisions in the Estrela report) are outside the competence of the European Parliament and belong to the parliaments of the member states.

For this reason the Estrela report was not debated as a new law but as what in the U.S. is called a “sense of the Congress” motion of recommendation. That does not render it harmless, however. For other power centers in the European Union — the courts for instance, or grant-giving bodies under the control of the European Commission — take these motions into account when reaching legal or financial decisions. Estrela, if passed, would have established not law but a climate of legal, political, and regulatory opinion. Given how the European Union works, that would have been a major advance for the Estrela coalition.

So far, so standard.

What made this news, however, was that the Estrela motion was narrowly defeated — by seven votes out of more than six hundred. That defeat outraged the bill’s supporters on the moral Left and also much of bien-pensant liberal opinion, which in Europe leans towards a kind of regulatory libertarianism. More interestingly, however, the defeat also surprised most people.

A few weeks ago almost everyone, including the bill’s sponsors, expected this motion to go through on the nod. It seemingly represented the political orthodoxy of Brussels. Then it ran into difficulties in its originating committee, and sensing a possible upset, Christian, pro-life, and traditionalist bodies both in Brussels and in member states ran a powerful social-media campaign urging its rejection. The fact that this then happened suggests two things: First, a nascent Christian conservative movement is beginning to stir in a Europe which has never been quite as secularist as observers on both sides of the culture war have sometimes suggested; second, with the European elections pending in May next year, many MEPs sensed (most for the first time) that there were political risks in taking ultra-liberal positions on life, family, and similar issues. The success of the anti-Estrela coalition suggests that a basic change may be occurring in European politics.

Some post-Christians — i.e., those who don’t believe in the Christian God but love the Christian institutions and values suffusing the societies in which they grew up — were also on the anti-Estrela side of the debate. Coercing the consciences of Christian nurses and doctors over abortion is illiberal as well as anti-Christian. It harks back to the religious tests of the 18th and 19th centuries. And that was a far more powerful argument against Estrela than what the moral Left claims were scare stories about childhood masturbation.

Another sign of this change was that, six days before the Estrela vote, the inaugural conference of the Transatlantic Christian Council (drawing on the groups within the anti-Estrela coalition) was held in Brussels. It was, in terms of numbers, distinction of the main speakers, and quality of debate, a great success. More on its impressive debut later.