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 government is abdicating responsibility for the Irish border after Brexit

The invisible border plan is full of holes and only a softer Brexit can avoid chaos.

The Government’s Brexit position paper yesterday on Northern Ireland that included its border proposals has only multiplied the number of questions that need urgent answers.

The questions people in Northern Ireland, particularly those in border communities, have asked me over the past year are in many ways similar to those I'm asked in my constituency in St Helens; what impact will Brexit have on them, their families, their jobs and businesses and their freedom of movement. But one issue looms larger than any other - the border.

These new proposals have now opened up a fresh set of questions on the border that are being asked not just by people in Northern Ireland but across Britain, Ireland and the EU too.  

The most obvious is that if you do not have checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, where do you carry out checks on immigration, goods and services?

The Government talks about an invisible border and using technology to make it work, proposing to have barrier-free access to the EU while negotiating free trade agreements. In that context, these ill-conceived proposals are more a reflection of a fantasy politics where the solution, not the border, is invisible. 

Based on its proposals yesterday, the Government is effectively handing back the decisions over a porous border of 310 miles and over 200 crossings to the European Union and abdicating responsibility for a mess of its own creation.

The Government paper stresses its commitment to maintaining an open border. But their relentless progress towards a hard Brexit raises a number of practical obstacles.

The first is immigration. A majority of my constituents in St Helens North and the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU in the referendum last year. I understand the fact that for many of them their main motivation was to achieve better control of immigration.

The Prime Minister herself has been very clear that her Government’s policy remains to cut annual net migration to the "tens of thousands" - a metric I believe to be artificial and flawed. But the Government’s policy on maintaining the Common Travel Area will create a gaping hole in Britain’s immigration policy.

Yesterday's proposals suggest that when we leave the EU, people wanting to come to Britain from EU countries will have to do no more than to book a flight to Dublin, take the bus to Belfast, and then cross the Irish Sea to enter Great Britain - with no checks at any point.

Far from taking back control of its borders as it claimed, the Government will be giving it away. Far from making our borders more secure, the loss of our place in the Single Market will open up a new route to illegal immigration and people traffickers. This is not what my constituents, or anyone else, voted for in the referendum.

At present, around 35,000 people cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic every day to work, study, visit relatives and do business. Over 200 crossing points handle 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1.85m cars per month.

Any immigration checks on the border whatsoever would be a practical nightmare. They would also be a collective psychological nightmare for people living in proximity to the border on both sides, erecting barriers between people - families and friends - in the North and South and potentially reopening divisions of the past.

This is the appalling Catch 22 the Government has placed itself in. Their position paper contains no evidence that they have a clue how to solve the problems they have created.

On customs, there is currently no barrier whatsoever to exporting and importing goods across the border. Huge numbers of firms rely on this frictionless cross-border trade. However, the Government’s plan raises the prospect that new controls will come into place, introducing additional cost and bureaucracy for companies and hitting the economy.

While they are trying to reassure small firms in particular that this will not be the case, it is inconceivable that Britain could leave the EU’s Customs Union and not impose customs checks.

Besides, Ireland is a member of the EU. Any deal cannot simply be arranged bilaterally between London and Dublin. It will need to apply to all the other EU nations.

The Government is casting around for a workable solution to the problems Brexit presents for Northern Ireland. But the easiest and most obvious answer is staring them in the face.

If Britain stayed within the Customs Union or the Single Market, the Common Travel Area would be mucheasier to maintain, and customs checks of any kind would not be required. To truly rule out a return to the borders of the past, the Government needs to swallow its pride and drop its commitment to a hard, destructive Brexit.

Theresa May made a huge strategic error in caving in to the Tory right-wing by ruling out a customs union or membership of the Single Market. She could have worked with EU partners who also have concerns about freedom of movement and want reform to get a good deal on good terms for Britain.

She has squandered goodwill in Europe and united the other 27 EU nations around a harder position against the UK.  The lack of a viable answer to the pressing questions over the Irish border is just the start of what I fear will be a very painful road ahead.

Conor McGinn is Labour MP for St Helens North.and a supporter of the Open Britain group.