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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.

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

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.