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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.