In response to your latest column in the New Statesman.
Being “a lefty” has a vague definition. To Daily Mail readers, it may mean anyone leftwing of Kenneth Clarke: to Mitt Romney’s followers, David Cameron is an unacceptable lefty. But let’s suppose it means, more or less, that you consider “social equality” to be more important than individual profit. I put “social equality” inside inverted commas because I appreciate that this is itself a concept that people have a different understanding of: it’s not so long since LGBT people were not included in any lefty mainstream understanding of “social equality”, and as we see with the current support for restricting abortion rights, for Julian Assange’s “right” to dodge being questioned on a sexual assault charge, for the silence about Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse for so many decades, it’s still uncertain whether many men think to include women in their ideal of “social equality”.
Listening to fellow pundits on the left react with rage and disbelief to the support by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, for halving the abortion time limit to 12 weeks, I was reminded of the late Christopher Hitchens. “[A]nyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows that emotions are not the deciding factor [in abortions],” wrote the Hitch in his column for the Nation magazine in April 1989. “In order to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain . . . break some bones and rupture some organs.”
Yes, that’s sometimes true. Of course, the earlier an abortion takes place, the less likely that it will be: the heart may not have developed, the brain may not yet exist, the bones and organs may still be so undeveloped that there is nothing there to break or rupture. But yes: terminating a pregnancy kills the foetus.
But it’s also true that anywhere girls and women are denied the right to choose abortion, that denial of termination ensures that heartbeats are stilled, a brain is switched off, organs are ruptured: women die. As a woman I know wrote wistfully once, “Do you suppose if we pointed out that we have dear little faces and actual fingernails on our hands, that they’d care that we die?”
You claim that was “solidly left-wing” of Christopher Hitchens to argue for forcing women to give birth against their will: that to argue that if a woman has the right to choose abortion this is “‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism”, that this is thinking like the “prehistoric right”? No. Prolifers find support with cheap-work conservatives, cheap-work conservatives encourage and fund prolifers, because women who can’t choose how many children to have, and when, are easy to use for others’ profit.
Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”
Yes, right-wingers are not above using the language of human rights for their own ends. The proof that right-wingers do not actually care about the foetus, but only about controlling and using and exploiting women, is seen in their own actions: when was the last time you saw a right-wing prolifer argue for universal healthcare, for funding more NHS midwives, more local prenatal healthcare centres, extra benefits for unemployed pregnant women so that they could afford to buy better food?
while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.
“My body, my life, my choice.” Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed.
Oh me oh my. Mehdi, where do you stand on rape? If it leaves you “perplexed” that a girl shall have the right to say “My body, my life, my choice” and decide to terminate a pregnancy, how do you feel about Jimmy Savile, who also found it perplexing that any girl should think it was “her body, her life, her choice“?
Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child? Which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb?
Goodness. So a woman ceases to exist as a human being, the instant she becomes pregnant? She does not have a voice, she does not deserve protection? She exists merely to be used by “society” to force her to give birth? That’s how you think of your wife, your daughters?
Yes, a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body – but a baby isn’t part of her body. The 24-week-old foetus can’t be compared with an appendix, a kidney or a set of tonsils; it makes no sense to dismiss it as a “clump of cells” or a “blob of protoplasm”.
But it does make sense to dismiss a pregnant woman as merely a choiceless unit to be used? A woman’s whole body functions in pregnancy, not only her uterus: blood, bones, teeth, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys – all change, sometimes permanently. That you have not realised this, though your wife experienced it, says that either she never managed to communicate this to you or that you were not listening. Pregnancy is up to 40 weeks (occasionally more) hard labour, which can permanently damage a woman’s health, which can still – even in developed countries – end in her death. To argue that the right to force a woman through pregnancy is nothing to do with her body is to dismiss women as living creatures, reduce women merely to mechanical incubators.
First, you do realise that the UK is the exception, not the rule? Jeremy Hunt’s position is the norm across western Europe: 12 weeks is the limit in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium. Then there’s how 91 per cent of British abortions are carried out in the first 13 weeks. You may disagree with a 12-week cut-off but to pretend it is somehow arbitrary, or extreme, or even unique is a little disingenuous.
First, you do realise that the UK is the exception out of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands in that legally, in the UK, we do not have abortion on demand? In most of the UK, no matter how early the abortion occurs, a woman must prove to two doctors that she needs to have the abortion. In Northern Ireland, abortion is only permitted if there’s a risk to the life of the mother. In France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, after the abortion-on-demand limit expires, the law on abortion becomes like the law in the UK: you must convince a doctor you need it.
This is a practical compromise: most elective abortions (the sort you insult as “selfish”) take place in the first 12 weeks, and the exceptions are mostly our guests from Ireland, who must save up the cost of abortion and the fare to (usually) London or Liverpool. Other exceptions include raped children who weren’t sure/were afraid to admit what was happening to them. No concern for little girls, Mehdi? None at all?
Jeremy Hunt is not proposing that we have abortion on demand up to 13 weeks. He’s proposing a ban on abortion after 12 weeks. That would mean any woman who needs an abortion after 12 weeks in Great Britain will have to find the fare and the costs to Belgium or the Netherlands. How exactly is that going to help anyone, Mehdi? No doubt the “selfish” feminists in the rest of EU will step in to help where men like you stand by and accuse women of acting out of ‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism”, but really – who will that help but Ryanair?
Second, you can’t keep smearing those of us who happen to be pro-life as “anti-women” or “sexist”.
Just as we can’t keep smearing supporters of FGM or forced-marriage as “anti-women” or “sexist” since such supporters include many women who’ve been brought up to assume this is just the right thing to do to other women? In pre-Communist China, it was the women of the family who broke their daughters’ feet in binding them. So we mustn’t “smear” these practices, and their supporters, as “anti-women”?
Then there is the history you gloss over, Mehdi:
some of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, such Mary Wollstonecraft, were anti-abortion, as were pioneers of US feminism such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the latter referred to abortion as “infanticide”.
Once upon a time, before antibiotics, abortion was more dangerous than childbirth – especially when carried out by an illegal/unqualified practitioner – but having an illegitimate baby would ensure social death and poverty for an unwed mother. Naturally, women who supported women’s rights to health and wellbeing would have supported a woman’s right to have the baby and to live. Today, early abortion is far safer than pregnancy: even illegal abortion is statistically safer than pregnancy/childbirth.
In recent years, some feminists have recognised the sheer injustice of asking a woman to abort her child in order to participate fully in society; in the words of the New Zealand feminist author Daphne de Jong: “If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.”
Absolutely. That’s why it’s called being prochoice. Your anti-women, sexist idea that a women must submit to forced pregnancy and childbirth is equally from a system of thinking that is devised and run by men for male convenience.
Third, please don’t throw faith in my face.
Indeed not. Your belief you have the right to tell women what to do is, as you justly point out, symptomatic not of being Muslim but of being a sexist man who’s never thought very much about what women need. Muslim women are as likely to have abortions as any other women when they need to, regardless of whether they’ve been taught to disapprove of women choosing to do so.
To be honest, I would be opposed to abortion even if I were to lose my faith. I sat and watched in quiet awe as my two daughters stretched and slept in their mother’s womb during the 20-week ultrasound scans. I don’t need God or a holy book to tell me what is or isn’t a “person”.
So you watched in awe as your daughters were in the womb, while dismissing your wife as a mere incubator without a choice: and as soon as your daughters are impregnated, even by rape, they too become mere incubators without choice? I think perhaps you do need a God to tell you that women are persons, too.
(Nor, for that matter, do I take kindly to some feminists questioning my right to have an opinion on this issue on account of my Y-chromosome.)
Not your Y-chromosome but your lack of human feeling towards people without one, Mehdi. (Your right to have an opinion, I admit. Your right to impose it on others against their will, I deny.)
Nevertheless, I’m not calling for a ban on abortion; mine is a minority position in this country. I’m not expecting most readers of the New Statesman to agree with me, either. What I would like is for my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists.
I can respect without understanding a belief in God. I can understand, but not respect, a belief that women are less than human. Take your pick.
One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is that it’s asymmetric: the two sides are talking at cross-purposes. The pro-lifers speak about the right to life of the unborn baby; the pro-choicers speak about a woman’s right to choose. The moral arguments, as the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has said, are “incommensurable”.
Nonsense. Anyone who supports full healthcare for pregnant women and children, who opposes war and hunger and poverty, is supporting the right to life of unborn children far more effectively than the lying hypocrites of the right-wing who claim they only want to ban abortion because of their love for foetuses. (A love, you’ll note, that does not extend to action to preserve foetal lives, but only to actions that make abortion more difficult to obtain.)
A woman must have the right to choose because ordinary humanity demands it.
Another problem is that the debate forces people to choose sides: right against left, religious against secular. Some of us, however, refuse to be sliced and diced in such a simplistic and divisive manner. I consider abortion to be wrong because of, not in spite of, my progressive principles. That I am pro-life does not make me any less of a lefty.
You are free to believe that “abortion is wrong”. When you get pregnant, you would then have to make the choice for yourself – whether to terminate or continue the pregnancy. If you never get pregnant, then only common empathy – the belief that women should not be forced or abused, the surety that women are human beings and deserve an equal measure of social justice, would keep you prochoice. But no progressive principles can justify arguing that a raped girl, a woman in need, ought to be forced to give birth against her will.
There are few issues that unite Jeremy Hunt, Christopher Hitchens and me. I’m not ashamed to say that abortion is one of them.
I’m truly sorry that you’re not ashamed. Any father of daughters should be.
-Update: I apologise for spelling your name wrong! An error I hate. I didn’t spot the spelling error until it was pointed out to me, hours later. Corrected now, but I can’t change the URL.
Other excellent responses include:
- Mehdi Hasan and abortion: So tell me, is this the right response?
- On the use of weapons and being pro abortion.
- Abortion, Reason and The Left: Why Mehdi Hasan is Wrong (Hurrah: now re-blogged at New Statesman.)
- Lies, Damned Lies, and Mehdi Hasan on Abortion (Hurrah: now reblogged at the Guardian.)
- In Defence of Irrationality: why Mehdi Hasan is wrong about sensible debate
Notably, the only one of any of these responses to Medhi Hasan’s post which has received any response is the one by a man, and this is why:
It’s not enough for Mehdi Hasan to tell women what they should do with their bodies – he wants to dictate how we should feel about being told that maybe we shouldn’t have so many rights. Take a good look, because this is what patriarchy looks like.
- Hasan himself at the Huffington Post, 10 Things I Learned From Debating Abortion On Twitter (and reblogged at the New Statesman)
- Abortion, Mehdi Hasan, Free Speech and the Left
- No, you cannot be left-wing and pro-life
- Abortion has made me think about what left wing means
- Being Wrong about Abortion
- Mehdi Hasan, Abortion and an Asymmetric Debate
- The despotic demands of the anti-abortionists
- Abortion isn’t about left and right, it’s a matter of life and sex
- Left at the door
- Abortion: Our concern, of course, is fascism.
- What Men Need To Tell Women About Abortion
And three – now four – articles, not written in response Mehdi Hasan’s article, but which I think answer a number of points raised:
- I wish my mother had aborted me (and the author’s response to two of the most common questions she is asked by readers)
- The rise of American-style anti-abortion tactics in the UK – why we all should be concerned
- The woman behind Ireland’s first abortion clinic
- “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion” When the Anti-Choice Choose
And finally, in response to those arguing that prolife can’t be anti-women since lots of women argue for restrictions on abortion – but no woman ever argues that she herself should have been criminalised and prevented from having the abortion she needed: