10 things Mehdi Hasan learned from debating abortion on Twitter

A response to the reaction to my most recent column.

I guess I should thank Felix Baumgartner. It was his jump that helped the Twitter mob "move on" from my column on abortion in the New Statesman - cross-posted on the Huffington Post UK - which had sparked such outrage, hysteria and abuse after it was published online on Sunday morning.

I may be digging myself further into a hole here but, with the benefit of a few hours of sleep, let me outline the ten things I think I learned from trying to debate and discuss abortion online:

1) Language matters. A lot.

First and foremost, I do deeply regret saying that supporters of abortion rights (not women, per se, by the way!) "fetishise... selfishness". Both words are, of course, deeply provocative and negative and I wish, with the benefit of hindsight, that I'd never used them.

Now, some on my side of this argument might say that the dictionary definition of "selfishness" - i.e. "concerned primarily with one's own interests" - makes the word relevant to this debate, on an abstract, ethical level, but that is beside the point. My use of it in this piece caused needless offence and hurt and, for that specifically, I want to apologise - especially to any female readers who have had to undergo an abortion, something I, of course, as a man, will never have to go through.

I normally write quite polemical and provocative columns but, when writing this particular piece, I did try to be careful and restrained in my use of language and avoid gratuitous abuse of my opponents - clearly, I wasn't careful or restrained enough.

2) Labels matter. On both "sides"

Many commenters on Twitter took offence at my self-identification as "pro-life". Now, I readily admit that "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are inaccurate, unhelpful and quite loaded phrases (who is anti-life? who is anti-choice?) - but what are the alternatives? What else do we have? In his blogpost in response to my column, Hope Sen embraces the phrase "pro abortion" but I know that many abortion-rights activists recoil from its implications. Meanwhile, it's worth pointing out that the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez (@weekwoman) have no right to criticise me for using the term "pro-life" if they, at the same time, uncritically embrace the equally propagandistic and useless term "pro-choice".

3) Two sides to every argument? Nope

What became apparent quite quickly yesterday is that, for some "pro choicers", there aren't two sides to every argument. I was told again and again by commenters on Twitter that there is no legitimate "pro life" (or "anti choice") position - which makes some of the the criticisms of my use of the words "selfishness" and "fetishise" (see point 1 above) a little irrelevant. It slowly dawned on me, at about 5pm on Sunday evening, that no matter how politely, gently and sensitively the anti-abortion case is expressed in the future, people on the 'pro-choice' liberal-left will never want to hear it. As Hopi Sen put it: "Every other argument, no matter how complex or technical, becomes secondary... What's more, they feel like issues on which there is little room for compromise, and on which I am right, and those who disagree with me are, bluntly, wrong." Or as one commenter on Twitter put it: "One thing that really gets on my nerves about @mehdirhasan's comments is that there isn't even a debate to be had about abortion." Er, ok.

Now I happen to respect the "pro choice" argument and accept it has a strong ethical foundation; the obverse, however, doesn't seem to the case. To hold 'pro life' views in modern Britain invites instant rejection and ridicule, as well as all sorts of repulsive and unwarranted accusations: yesterday, I was called, among other things, "evil", "sexist", "misogynist", "dictator" (despite the fact that I was "not calling for a ban on abortion; mine is a minority position in this country"), "dickhead", "irresponsible bum", "the enemy", and, in the words of Labour blogger Hopi Sen - in a post that was lauded by, among others, Laurie Penny and Diane Abbott MP - "a self righteous little prick" (Hopi later added: "I'm not saying Mehdi Hasan is a SRLP, but that his argument left me with the reaction 'Mehdi Hasan is a SRLP'". I guess that's ok then.)

Oh, and one "pro choice" blogger compared me to Jimmy Saville. Classy.

4) Forget the foetus

I received hundreds and hundreds of tweets yesterday; the vast majority of them were critical of my position and a significant chunk of those were abusive. I can count on two hands the number of commenters who engaged with my claim that "a baby isn't part of [a woman's] body" and has rights of its own. If I am guilty of not giving due weight and attention to women's rights in my piece - and my critics do have a point here - then the 'pro choicers' online were equally guilty of ignoring the foetus, being unwilling to engage in the debate over 'personhood' and, in some shocking cases, dehumanising the foetus in order to score a point. I was astonished by the number of commenters on Twitter who referred to the foetus as a "cancer", a "lump of flesh", a "parasite" and a "cake" (as in, "cake in the oven").

The Independent's Musa Okwonga says this morning that he has "never known a woman considering abortion who has not thought, long and heart-breakingly hard, of the unborn child". I'm sure that's true - but, sadly, the afore-mentioned tweets might suggest that's not always the case.

5) It's all Islam's fault!

Muslims, it seems, aren't allowed to have independent political or moral views. Within minutes of my piece being published online yesterday morning, the precocious (pompous?) Economist reporter Daniel Knowles accused me of being "dishonest" about the real reason for my 'pro-life' position which was driven by...wait for it...yes, Islam! Despite the fact that Islamic law has no fixed, single position on abortion and despite me making clear in the piece that I would be anti-abortion "even if I were to lose my faith". To be fair, Knowles later apologised and deleted the tweet. Still, would a Jewish or Hindu journalist be accused of hiding the 'real reasons' for their views, in a similar fashion, I wonder?

6) My opponent's opponent is... not my friend

You know you've upset the liberal-left when Dan Hodges, Nadine Dorries MP and Damian Thompson rush to your defence on Twitter. Argh!

7) Unhitch from the Hitch

Quoting the late, not-so-great Christopher Hitchens at the outset of my column was a bad move. "I don't know why you bother to cite Hitchens," tweeted the Times' Janice Turner. "His sexual politics appalling. Reductive about anything which matters for women." Labour councillor Ed Davie tweeted: "quoting drunk, turncoat, neocon Hitchens shows weakness of anti-choice argument". Ouch.

8) Not-so-free speech

The reaction from left-liberal, 'pro-choice' commenters on Twitter yesterday reminded me that the right may have a point when they object to the left's shrill, one-sided, close-minded response to any attempt to debate certain social and ethical issues. In the wake of yesterday's Twitterstorm, I was depressed to find myself nodding along to a leader in today's Telegraph: "[T]he most notable feature of the current debate is not the victimisation of those who have abortions, but the vilification of those who in any way criticise the system."

On a related note, on Thursday, I was told by David Aaronovitch at a debate in the LSE that Muslims need "to get a thicker skin" and "be less touchy". Yesterday, I discovered that those who are liberally-inclined on abortion are quite touchy and have very, very thin skins. Oh, and many of them believe that half the world's population (i.e. men) should not have a say on one of the world's most controversial and important moral issues.

9) We are not alone

"Pro-life" lefties do exist - several well-known individuals emailed and DM-ed me their support. But they were afraid to do so publicly. Yesterday's Twitter mob frenzy (see points 3 and 8 above) will only have reinforced their conviction that if you're a progressive and "pro-life", it's best to lie low. One well-known female journalist told me recently: "I can't write about this issue."

10) I give up

The truth is that abortion is too heated, emotive and complex an issue to debate in 140 characters. Or, for that matter, in 950 words.

In conclusion, I wrote this column, not because I wanted to have a row about abortion or "climb on a bandwagon" (as bandwagon-climber-in-chief Diane Abbott claimed in a tweet), but because I desperately wanted "my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists".

Yesterday's Twitter responses show that I failed to persuade them to do so. Partly, through a loose use of language (i.e. "selfishness", "fetishize", etc); partly, however, because sections of the 'pro-choice' liberal-left aren't willing to acknowledge that abortion isn't a black-and-white issue; it's a complex moral debate, involving rights and responsibilities, life and death, on which well-meaning, moral people come to different ethical conclusions.

To go back to my original column, which so few on Twitter seemed to have bother to read before unleashing their hate, anger and bile:

"One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is that it's asymmetric: the two sides are talking at cross-purposes. The pro-lifers speak about the right to life of the unborn baby; the pro-choicers speak about a woman's right to choose. The moral arguments, as the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has said, are 'incommensurable'."

This piece first appeared here on the Huffington Post and is crossposted with Mehdi's permission

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.