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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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”