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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.