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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.