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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How society is failing transgender children

In the wake of the cancellation of a public debate on this subject, one of the speakers shares her view on where society's approach to gender nonconformity is going wrong.

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

And yet, look again at that list of side effects: breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, fainting, inability to participate fully in exercise. The female adolescents wearing binders have reproduced all the problems of tight-lacing corsets, this time in the service of restrictive anti-femininity rather than restrictive femininity. So is issuing guidance to reduce the harms of binder-wearing in schools an act of care for transgender children, or an abdication of it? Is the role of adults in authority – whether parental, educational or medical – to validate everything that comes under the rubric of transition, regardless of long-term consequences, or could another approach be better?

The number of children who identify as trans is small, but rapidly increasing: referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s gender identity development service have doubled year-on-year. Putting gender-nonconforming youths on a medical track opens the possibility that they will be prescribed puberty blockers, delaying the physical changes of adolescence that individuals may find distressing. Later, treatment can include cross-sex hormones and surgery to create the desired sexual characteristics.

For many, this can alleviate profound anguish about the self, but not without costs. The long-term effects of hormone therapies aren’t known, and won’t be until the current generation of trans children have lived well into adulthood. There’s a risk that increased medicalisation could be imposing permanent physical changes on children who, left to their own devices, would discover they are quite happy living with their natal sex – about 80 per cent of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria desist before adulthood, but the normalisation of medical transition could commit many to irrevocable treatments they would otherwise avoid.

Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition. Medicine often involves a surprising degree of idiosyncrasy and guesswork, but this uncertainty both about what is being treated and the effects of the treatment should be a cause for caution. While many who transition find it wholly positive, not everyone does: doubt and detransition happen, and these stories tell us that the quickest path to reassignment is not always the best treatment for someone presenting with dysphoria.

Sometimes, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria might mask a different underlying cause to a child’s distress. Psychiatrist Susan Bradley reports that children with cross-sex identification are often (not always) either responding defensively to a violent background or engaging in the obsessive behaviours associated with autistic spectrum disorders. A policy of “watchful waiting” – listening to the child, supporting them and giving them freedom to experiment and develop – is vital if we are to give children the kind of help they really need. But in an environment where anything short of total and immediate reinforcement is deemed abusive, “watchful waiting” is not an option.

One more problem: if gender dysphoria is conceived as the problem, and gender reassignment as the solution, then transition represents the summation of a process which should in theory resolve everything. In practice, newly-transitioned young people (especially those crossing the threshold from child and adolescent mental health services to adult provision) can find themselves stranded, no longer in receipt of the support they had during transition. We simply aren’t getting the treatment of transgender children right if we’re only treating their gender.

The consequences extend well beyond children who identify as trans, of course. Schools are suffused with sexual harassment and sexual violence, yet girls are expected to accept a child they previously knew as a boy as female like them, or be called bigots. The naturalisation of sex-stereotypes in parental narratives of transition surely has a limiting influence on other children’s conception of sex-appropriate behaviour. For some gender-nonconforming children, the cultural celebration of transition leads to anxiety about whether they themselves should be trans, even if they’re happy in their bodies. Certainly, many gay and lesbian adults have looked back on their own childhoods and remarked nervously that their behaviour then would qualify them as trans now.

If we’re not able to address these issues, then we’re manifestly failing children. But addressing them is incredibly difficult: practitioners who privately mention their doubts about current approaches to gender noncomformity are afraid to ask questions publicly, anticipating personal attacks and the loss of their jobs.

They’re not wrong to do so. After announcing the Dare to Debate event, the NSPCC was put under sustained pressure, I was persistently abused, and following the withdrawal of the other panelist, the charity cancelled the event. Previous installments in the series have looked at child sexualisation, foetal alcohol syndrome, and asked whether the investigation of child sexual abuse has tipped into “hysteria”, but apparently it would be just too daring to talk about gender. Doctrine so bitterly defended that it must even be protected from good-faith debate is a kind of restrictive garment for the intellect. Wearing it can ease our mental pangs. But the damage it does besides is very real.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.