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Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies.

Listening to fellow pundits on the left react with rage and disbelief to the support by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, for halving the abortion time limit to 12 weeks, I was reminded of the late Christopher Hitchens. “[A]nyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows that emotions are not the deciding factor [in abortions],” wrote the Hitch in his column for the Nation magazine in April 1989. “In order to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain . . . break some bones and rupture some organs.”

It is often assumed that the great contrarian’s break with the liberal left came over Iraq in 2003. His self-professed pro-life position, however, had provoked howls of anguish in progressive circles 14 years earlier. It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice. Yet Hitchens’s reasoning was not just solid but solidly left-wing. It was a pity, he noted, that the “majority of feminists and their allies have stuck to the dead ground of ‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism, an ideology that has more in common than it admits with the prehistoric right, which it claims to oppose but has in fact encouraged”.

Blob of protoplasm

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”, while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

“My body, my life, my choice.” Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed. Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child? Which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb?

Yes, a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body – but a baby isn’t part of her body. The 24-week-old foetus can’t be compared with an appendix, a kidney or a set of tonsils; it makes no sense to dismiss it as a “clump of cells” or a “blob of protoplasm”. However, my motive for writing this column is not merely to revisit ancient arguments, or kick off a philosophical debate on the distinctions between socialism (with its emphasis on equality, solidarity and community) and liberalism (with its focus on individual freedom, autonomy and choice), but to make three points to my friends on the pro-choice left.

First, you do realise that the UK is the exception, not the rule? Jeremy Hunt’s position is the norm across western Europe: 12 weeks is the limit in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium. Then there’s how 91 per cent of British abortions are carried out in the first 13 weeks. You may disagree with a 12-week cut-off but to pretend it is somehow arbitrary, or extreme, or even unique is a little disingenuous.

Second, you can’t keep smearing those of us who happen to be pro-life as “anti-women” or “sexist”. For a start, 49 per cent of women, compared to 24 per cent of men, support a reduction in the abortion limit, according to a YouGov poll conducted this year. “Polls consistently show . . . that women are more likely than men to support a reduction,” says You - Gov’s Anthony Wells.

Then there is the history you gloss over: some of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, such Mary Wollstonecraft, were anti-abortion, as were pioneers of US feminism such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the latter referred to abortion as “infanticide”. In recent years, some feminists have recognised the sheer injustice of asking a woman to abort her child in order to participate fully in society; in the words of the New Zealand feminist author Daphne de Jong: “If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.”

Third, please don’t throw faith in my face. Hitchens, remember, was one of the world’s best-known atheists. You might assume that my own anti-abortion views are a product of my Muslim beliefs. They aren’t. (And the reality is that different schools of Islamic law have differing opinions on abortion time limits. The Iranian ayatollah Yousef Saanei, for instance, has issued a fatwa permitting termination of a pregnancy in the first trimester.)


To be honest, I would be opposed to abortion even if I were to lose my faith. I sat and watched in quiet awe as my two daughters stretched and slept in their mother’s womb during the 20-week ultrasound scans. I don’t need God or a holy book to tell me what is or isn’t a “person”. (Nor, for that matter, do I take kindly to some feminists questioning my right to have an opinion on this issue on account of my Y-chromosome.)

Nevertheless, I’m not calling for a ban on abortion; mine is a minority position in this country. I’m not expecting most readers of the New Statesman to agree with me, either. What I would like is for 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.

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”.

Another problem is that the debate forces people to choose sides: right against left, religious against secular. Some of us, however, refuse to be sliced and diced in such a simplistic and divisive manner. I consider abortion to be wrong because of, not in spite of, my progressive principles. That I am pro-life does not make me any less of a lefty.

There are few issues that unite Jeremy Hunt, Christopher Hitchens and me. I’m not ashamed to say that abortion is one of them.

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and the political director of Huffington Post UK. This article is crossposted with the Huffington Post here.

UPDATE 16/10/2012 Mehdi has written a follow-up to this column, entitled "10 things I learned from debating abortion on Twitter" which is available on the NS here and the HuffPo here.

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.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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What I learned from the Conservative conference protests

Speaking to the protestors, I found people desperate for a voice.

On Sunday journalists were spat at outside the Conservative conference in Manchester for doing their job. At the same time, in the same place, I moved around the protest without experiencing any of this. In fact, I’d already written the first half of this blog before I even knew it had happened.

It is plainly not okay for anyone to be gobbed on as they go about their business.

But here’s the protest as I experienced it.

The crowd around me explodes into noise.

“Stop taking pictures of us you f***ing *****!”

“Do you have the right to do that? Do you? Wankers!”

A young lad, about 18 with auburn curly hair and baggy grey jogging bottoms, makes the loudest comment.

“Why are you doing that from four floors up? Come down and take our picture if you want it.”

I’m stood amid a group of men aged 18 to 40, almost uniformly dressed in grey hoodies. They are part of the People’s Assembly protest gathering in Manchester’s Great Northern Square outside the Conservative party’s annual conference. It’s 10.45am on a Sunday morning.

The group caught my eye as I walked down the road from the Radisson Blu hotel – a place so swish it smells of expensive perfume. Pootling around ready for a fringe event I would later be chairing I’d collected my conference press pass a few minutes earlier and was walking back towards my hotel.

As I did, I noticed an angry bearded man with matted hair, holding a pair of black trainers in his hands, and walking in threadbare socked feet as he yelled at a policeman. Men in hi-vis jackets (working for an acronymed security company) were leaping out of vans and setting up barriers around the plot of grass which sits right in front of the Great Northern Quarter, overlooked by a huge brick converted warehouse, and alongside the conference entrance.

More dishevelled men were walking across the road. All white, all male, all looking as if they’d slept little for days.

One of the men asked if the police were completely blocking off the square. At this point I was curious. Were they being stopped from protesting? Aware that I was tottering in heels, wearing a bright pink coat, and holding a conference brochure I was a bit hesitant about asking further questions. The get-up shrieked I’m a tory. But a press pass isn’t just there for access to nice-smelling hotels. So I started to follow them.

“Is something going on in the square?” I asked the man, who later told me his name was Andy.

“It’s the People’s Assembly, they’re having a protest,” he said in thick Mancunian accent.

“Are the police going to stop it?”

“They can’t,” he said, nodding to the converted warehouse, “there’s an AMC cinema in there, and businesses. They can’t afford to stop them being open. They won’t mess with the businesses”.

I explained I was a journalist. They seemed fine. We kept talking.

A small group showed me the tents on the square where people had camped overnight, and described the protest’s centre at Piccadilly Gardens from where they had arrived.

I explained I wrote about schools. They told me of the Facebook page where I could look to see People’s Assembly’s education events and asked me about prison education. (They are worried about cuts).

Callum, the oldest-looking in the crowd, with a startling similarity to Timothy Spall, talks bluntly but smartly about Noam Chomsky, totalitarianism, Trident. His points are astute even if I don’t always agree. The whole group are excited that Jeremy Corbyn is due to visit.

During the conversation people wander in and out. Some look as if they are struggling with drug addiction; one has tobacco-stained fingers the colour of a chain-smoking 100-year-old. But they are sensitive to one another and keen to help me. They are worried that violent tendencies will mean the loss of their message and talk about the police with calmness, “They largely do their job well, just on occasion they go overboard.”

And then. It explodes.

From several floors up in the warehouse they hear a shout. I don’t hear it. But they seem to.

Camera lenses are suddenly pointing out of several of the windows – snapping away. Producers, photographers, on-lookers, all looking down from their lofty positions. The anger among the crowd swells.

Andy pulls his hood up, Callum starts pacing, many of them start shouting.

The young auburn-haired lad, circling from around the edges, now steps out in front of the crowd and starts yelling skywards. In his thick Manchester accent he wants to know from the camera people what rights they have to photograph him. He swears. He tells them he’s going to go up there and batter them.

Two men come out of the tents, waving sticks and middle fingers.

My heart sinks. Every time one of them throws their arms out or points their stick, I know the photographs are getting better and better. Every swear or insult proves their unreasonableness.

Andy and Callum know this too. “Stop being so aggressive,” they hiss at the young man.

“It’s a public car park. I’m going to go up there and get them,” he replies, shrugging his shoulders furiously and puffing out his chest.

“Why don’t you just ask them to come down here?” Callum says sharply, “Tell them if they want pictures of us to come down and ask us what we’re doing.”

The weariness of the group is palpable. I feel entirely torn by it. On the one hand I know why the photographers are four floors up. They’re awaiting the march. A fourth storey is a perfect vantage point from which to record it. While waiting, it makes sense to get some other shots. The group’s over-reaction is perfect.

At the same time, I can see how it feels intrusive. Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.

“They don’t even know our name”, says Andy.

Shortly after leaving the group I head to a fancy coffee shop on a parallel road. I order a flat white coffee and a bakewell slice. It costs six quid. The room is filled with smartly-dressed people who, like me, are here early for conference and who, also like me, are hiding in the comforts of somewhere warm, clean, ‘civilised’. It’s the sort of place most of us spend our lives, I suspect.

I think about Andy, Callum, and the angry young man. It strikes me that perhaps the ‘new politics’ isn’t so much about a lurch to the left as it is about recognising that the people on the ground want the people on the fourth floor to know their names. Or at least have the decency to come down and ask.

By 2pm I have watched my first fringe event within the boundaries of the actual conference. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said all the right things and I have tweeted and written and clapped.

As I walk towards the exit reading social media on my phone I notice that journalists are rightly furious because one of them has been spat on by a protester. The picture lays bare the grim reality. Up ahead the police are telling people to hide their passes. There is panic in the air.

Knowing I must go back to my hotel regardless of the situation I decide to walk back across the square. If things turn nasty I hope I might be able to find Callum or Andy. Or that someone might remember me as the girl with the pink coat from earlier and go easy.

As I head out onto the square the protest is snaking around it. A choir of middle-aged women stands along one side of the road singing an adapted hymn about the bedroom tax. It is haunting and powerful. The tent group are mostly wearing face masks. I can’t see anyone I know.

I start talking to two security guards from the Great Northern building who are out on the square for a better view.

One has a thick scouse accent: “It’s all fine. The worse thing is when it gets violent, then the media will start saying that it’s everyone, and the words get lost, that’s bad, that means you’ve lost the message, but there’s good and bad in everyone, and look at all these people, and it’s fine.”

They complain that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt purposely came through the square where the protesters were standing.

“Everyone else has gone the other way but he came through here and he wonders why people are at him and that, but he came through here on purpose.”

I have no idea if he did or didn’t, but it does seem an unusual route compared to other politicians.

One of the security guards bristles as he sees two "leaders" of the camp emerging from the protest, and heading to sit on a low wall by the grass. They’re the men I saw earlier coming out of the tents; waving fingers at the press. One is heavily tattooed, leaning on a walking stick, wearing a t-shirt with a comic cover, his eyes slowly rolling. The other is neatly dressed in jeans and a black bomber jack, but he’s agitated and gaunt. He has one visible tooth.

I wander over and ask whether anyone has told them to move their tents. They start explaining about Section 60s, and police "force", and spraying down pavements. I don’t know what any of it means. I explain that I’m a journalist. We talk for a while about their grievances.

One of the pair, Tom, is angry that his sister’s benefits have been cut dramatically and she is struggling to feed her daughter. She was forced to attend a food bank last week, he says.

“Meanwhile they’re ordering 3,000 bottles of champagne into there at sixty quid each and yet they’re the ones using the police to protect them.”

I don’t know if his figures are accurate nor why his sister’s benefits have been cut. But it’s an anger-riling sentiment if you, like Tom, believe it to be true.

The other man, John, talks about his homelessness in the 90s. Eventually he went to university (John Moore’s in Liverpool) and wrote poetry for a while. He had a book contract, once. But he lapsed when his sister got ill. Now he is angry with the royal family.

“Things like the first world war were caused by royalty” he says, “We send our poorest to die for them… But why aren’t their children ever the first into battle?”

I have no answer.

After an hour of ducking and weaving in the crowd I head to my hotel, then back again, each time without a hint of anyone shouting directly at me. Across roads I see people in suits being heckled and others on mobile phones diving under police barriers and being escorted away. The chants of Tory scum are happening as I walk up to the entrance. I can hear them. I just don’t think of them as personal insults.

Inside everyone is sharing their experiences of being yelled at; of being called a Tory c***, of being intimidated, of the awfulness. I feel guilty for pointing out my take was so different. On Twitter someone suggests it’s because I’m northern and scary. In my ludicrous outfit and with an accent considered normal for the area, neither is true.

Instead, the fourth floor metaphor keeps coming back to me.

Protesters simply see people in suits walking away. It’s the symbol of what makes them most angry: being ignored by the wealthy. That’s why they yell. And, to them, a media who sticks a camera in their face to get a story without first seeking to understand is a parasite. Not Tory scum, but journalist scum. A part of the establishment that ignores its people. It doesn’t matter whether the nuance of that is true or not – that’s how they feel, and so they shout.

Sadly – inevitably – inside the conference gates I learn that the spitting, the yelling, and the aggression has only served to build the walls up further. “They don’t deserve my attention,” says someone who has been yelled at repeatedly. “Welcome to the new politics,” remarks another with disdain.

And so we waddle into the age old battle of the powerful and rational deciding that unless you can have a "civilised" conversation then you’re not welcome at their door and the emotional crowd outside become angrier and angrier as their voice is dismissed for not being what is deemed civil while the people in power continue imposing cuts – a behaviour the protestors would argue is uncivilised – and they do so while applauding one another in a fancy conference centre.

No one should be spat on. No one should be dismissed as unimportant.

We must guard against the fourth floor crowd, who have the keys to the kingdom, barricading themselves in and dismissing the mob below. If that happens, the mass will increasingly want to come up and batter the ignorance out of them. And while, somewhere, on a metaphorical stair landing between the two, there’ll be me and Callum hovering around in our pink coats and grey hoodies trying to work out how the hell we get the two groups to talk sensibly, the fact is we have no clue of how to even begin. Writing up this experience was really all I could think to do.

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.