Abortion, reason and the left: Why Mehdi Hasan is wrong

It's a lack of consideration of women's lives, not gender or faith, that sours the abortion debate.

This is a response to Mehdi Hasan's column "Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty"

So says Mehdi Hasan of the experience of being caught up in his very own “Twitterstorm”. And he is right to regret the often aggressive nature of Twitter responses. No one should be exposed to personal attacks for their ideological position; they should be subjected to a rational exposition of the flaws in their argument. Nevertheless, this tweet is more than a little disingenuous, since it implies that he has been entirely reasoned and measured.

But he hasn’t.

This is perhaps not immediately clear from his apparently measured tone, and the seemingly logical dismissal of his imaginary interlocutor’s objections. However, on closer inspection, his language, and his central thesis that his “pro-life” stance is arguably a result of his left-wing position, belie his self-presentation as a voice of reason in a storm of illogical emoting.

This is clear from his very use of “pro-life”; he contends on Twitter that he is simply using the established terms of debate, but this is self-evidently dishonest. The term “pro-life” immediately implies its opposite: either “anti-life” or “pro-death”. It is a clever rhetorical tactic employed by those who oppose abortion, or “a woman’s right to choose”, to frame the debate on their own terms. It forces their antagonist into defensive mode, which is always a weaker position, since it presupposes a norm. And norms are powerful .

By using this term Hasan employs an undermining tactic that he uses to subtle, although powerful effect, throughout his piece. His opponents are emotional rather than logical: they are “provoked” to “howls of anguish” by Hitchens’s “solid” “reasoning”; they “fetishize” their position in opposition to pro-lifers who “talk”. He accuses pro-choicers of “smearing” him; he asks them not to “throw [his] faith in [his] face”. And yet in the same article he repeatedly “smears” them with oppositional language that positions him on the side of logic and social progressiveness, relegating pro-choicers to the illogical side of the raging ego of neoliberalism. He pre-emptively throws a political ideology in their face.

And Hasan’s framing of the debate in the context of a political ideology is as disingenuous and silencing as he claims faith-based argument is. Those who would seek to dismiss Hasan’s opposition to abortion on the basis of his faith seek to undermine him, to claim that his opinion is invalid, because it is illogical. This form of dismissal is a coin toss away from Hasan’s reiteration of Hitchens’s alignment of “'Me Decade’ possessive individualism” with “pro-choice”. They are both gross over-simplifications of a complex issue.

Hitchens and Hasan attempt an impressive sleight-of-hand. Because what those on the left do most object to is precisely the “’choice’, selfishness and unbridled individualism” that characterises neoliberalism. And since those who support a woman’s right to choose use the term “pro-choice”, it seems entirely logical for Hasan to claim that his pro-life stance should be the natural position of the left. After all, as he says, he is standing up for the “member of our society” who most “needs a voice”: namely, “the mute baby in the womb”. And isn’t that what those of us on the left claim to do?

Unfortunately for Hasan, this just won’t do. Because what he ignores in this simplistic evocation of the “choice” debates is that women are also “members of our society” who suffer from the lack of “voice”. Women are underrepresented in the media, in parliament; women who do speak out are aggressively silenced by online misogyny – if Hasan thinks today has been bad, I invite him to run my blog for a day. There is of course a difference between physically not being able to speak and psychologically not being able to speak, but to totally ignore the position of women in society when discussing abortion is simplistic to say the least. Less generous souls might call it deceitful.

But hang on, Hasan will cry (see, there I go pre-empting my imaginary interlocutor), I do refer to women’s position in society. And indeed he does: he refers to Daphne de Jong, who eloquently says, “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.” And this is true. It is without a doubt appalling that some women who might want to keep their child feel that they cannot for such reasons. It is an indictment on the co-evil system of patriarchy and capitalism that such abortions take place.

But to stand against abortion on those terms is to reduce all abortions to a “lifestyle choice”, which they manifestly are not. It is to completely ignore the psychological and physical impact that pregnancy and labour can have on a woman’s body. It is to dismiss the lasting impact that a child can have on a woman’s life – mentally, physically, socially. This disingenuous hanging on to the term “choice” ignores all this and reduces a woman’s decision to abort to the level of her decision to wear make-up, change job, buy a pair of shoes. It’s more complicated than that and Hasan knows it.

Or perhaps he doesn’t. And here I come to one of Hasan’s major pre-emptive objections, that feminists question his “right to have an opinion on this issue on account of my Y-chromosome”. This is, again, disingenuous. Feminists will not object because of an abstract chromosome. They will object for precisely the reason that Hasan so emphatically demonstrates in his argument: the total lack of consideration of the reality of women’s lives. For many men, pregnancy seems to be an abstract concept. This is not their fault: they cannot and never will have the lived experience of being a woman in this society, of going through pregnancy, of giving birth. For some women this will be intensely traumatic in ways that it is all too easy for certain men to dismiss in abstract wrangling. And Hasan’s total failure to engage with this lived reality is fundamentally undermining to his argument. Not his Y-chromosome, not his faith, not even his insidious persistence in painting those who disagree with him as illogical, egocentric neo-liberals.

So Mr Hasan, here’s my “sensible” debate on a “moral issue”; I look forward to a rejoinder that discusses women’s lived experiences under patriarchy.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is starting a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman. This post first appeared on her blog here.

A banner carried during a march on the International Day of Abortion in Mexico. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle