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.

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The changing world of work

As is always the case with challenges such as this, it falls to Labour to make the political case for action. Because inevitably the Tories will revert back to their time honoured answer - people are on their own and can sink or swim accordingly. 

“There is no point knocking doors here.  There won’t be many people at home.  Let’s just deliver leaflets.”  It was a Monday morning in April 2015, and I was keen to meet as many voters as possible, so I ignored the advice.  I’m glad I did.  For that morning I met a number of people, working from home, self-employed, trying to use every hour productively. 

That I met so many is unsurprising.  The reality is we are seeing an unprecedented boom in self-employment in this country. 

According to the ONS, between 2010 and 2014, the number of self-employed people increased by 663,000.  Indeed, in 2014, 15 per cent of the workforce was self-employed, some 4.6 million people.  This isn’t just a major spike in our history, it also gives us the highest rates of self-employment in the G7. 

This extraordinary rise shows little sign of reversing.  Which throws up a huge number of policy questions if we want to ensure that this rapidly changing employment market doesn't leave millions of workers precariously standing alone at the mercy of market forces. 

As is always the case with challenges such as this, it falls to Labour to make the political case for action. Because inevitably the Tories will revert back to their time honoured answer - people are on their own and can sink or swim accordingly. 

As the party that wants to ensure people from every background have a platform to make the most of their talents, Labour understand that for many people self-employment offers a number of attractions, not least independence. 

Many of the self-employed people I speak to tell me that they enjoy being their own boss, or having the flexibility to work their hours around the other things that are important in their lives, like child care or studying.  Before my election last May, I was self-employed, so I know the advantages it can sometimes bring. 

However, it’s also clear that existing systems have been too slow to catch up with a rapidly changing economy.  So for too many people the flexibility, comes at the price of a lack of security. 

As it stands, self-employed people have no entitlement to statutory sick pay. Self-employed mothers are only entitled to maternity allowance instead of full maternity pay. This is particularly significant, because whilst the majority of the self-employed are still men, the number of self-employed women is growing fastest.  With around half of additional jobs taken up by women between 2008 and 2015 being self-employed.    

The New Policy Institute-Citizens’ Advice report, “Who are the self-employed?” found that, in 2015, only 17 per cent of the self-employed were in a pension scheme, compared to 52 per cent of employees, with that latter figure likely to rise even further with the  continued rollout of pensions auto-enrolment.  Neither are all self-employed people high earners.  In fact, the median income from self-employment in 2013-14 was £209 per week.

There's also the problem that in some areas the status of self-employment is being used as a convenient label, to deny workers their rights.   

The Citizens’ Advice report, “Neither one thing nor the other” highlighted the problem of bogus self-employment: “People who are in bogus self-employment can have their hours, the nature of their work and even the amount that they are paid changed at a moment’s notice.”  Sadly, this kind of treatment is all too common.  The report concluded: “We suspect that one in ten of the people that we surveyed are bogusly self-employed.  If scaled up, this could translate into as many as 460,000 people nationwide.” 

Since it can be advantageous for employers to categorise workers as self-employed for national insurance purposes, the report estimated that government could be losing as much as £314 million per year from the coffers. 

The construction union UCATT have run effective campaigns exposing this kind of malpractice by some umbrella companies.  Yet more needs to be done to uncover and stamp out such exploitation. 

Bogus self-employment isn't only an issue for the self-employed themselves. In many sectors of the economy it can also result in a race to the bottom of conditions, driving down standards for all workers. 

These are just some of the factors that combine to create a complex challenge. New technology and ways of working have the potential to give millions of people the chance to enjoy far greater freedom. However, there's also a risk that growing atomisation of people will see many of the workplace protections that previous generations struggled to secure wiped away. 

As a Labour historian, I know that such challenges have faced our movement in every generation.  We have always risen to the task. Now we must do so again to show that Labour has the answers for the workplace in 2020 and beyond. 

I'm proud that as shadow employment minister I have a chance to play my part in that vital work.

Nick Thomas-Symonds is Labour MP for Torfaen and biographer of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan.