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Debating abortion, deliberative reciprocity and parliamentary advocacy

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An influential model of deliberative democracy advances a principle of reciprocity as a norm of democratic debate on morally controversial issues. This norm is at odds with behaviour that has been observed in political campaigning and policy making where advocates of competing positions talk past one another. Does this inconsistency stem from a contrast between the normative and empirical or from not considering empirically plausible practices of democratic debate in which reciprocity might be respected? One such practice is free votes on conscience issues in the UK parliament. This article examines six second reading debates in the UK House of Commons on abortion legislation to assess whether, in favourable circumstances, political debate is consistent with reciprocity. Utilising computer-aided text analysis, via the Alceste program, it finds no gross departure from the norm of reciprocity, suitably operationalised, but neither does it find complete conformity to the norm of reciprocity. Because advocacy is an important component of political representation, deliberative norms are qualified in practice.

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