Do pro-choice feminists really speak for women?

The majority of those who want a reduction in abortion time-limits are women.

The new and somewhat accident-prone Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has stoked the embers of the ever smouldering abortion debate by expressing his personal view that the default time limit for elective termination should be cut from the current 24 weeks to 12. While 12 weeks is not exceptionally low by continental European standards (indeed, it is more-or-less the European norm, being the limit in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark and several other countries) it is outside the normal terms of debate in the UK, where calls for a reduction have tended to coalesce around twenty weeks, the figure supported on the radio this morning by Home Secretary Theresa May.

If Twitter has a collective mind, it's distinctly pro-choice, so it's hardly surprising that when news of Hunt's statement emerged late last night it was greeted by an overwhelming chorus of boos, above all from feminists. The Guardian's feminist-in-chief Suzanne Moore tweeted that she was "cheered by the gut reaction towards Hunt here," adding that "the Tories will not win their war on women." Two incredibly lazy but widespread assumptions combine in the notion of a "Tory war on women". Firstly that the divide on abortion is primarily political (and left-right) rather than moral, and that the pro-choice position is progressive and the pro-life one reactionary. Secondly, that the pro-choice case is the pro-women, feminist one and its opponents are motivated by hatred of women, or at the very least by an inherently misogynistic desire to control women's lives.

The reaction was the same earlier this week, when Maria Miller (Hunt's successor as Culture Secretary, who is also minister for women) told the Telegraph that she favoured a 20 week limit. Describing calls to reduce the time limit "a key flashpoint in ongoing attempts to chip away at a woman’s right to choose", Zoe Stavri articulated the feminist orthodoxy in the New Statesman. "To support women," she declared, "you must support the choices they make about their own body, whether it’s something you approve of or not." Miller was "no friend of women" and had no right being women's minister, since her views were "anything but pro-women."

To be a feminist, one assumes, is to support women. That doesn't mean, of course, that men can't support feminist platforms, or even be feminists (though there are some radical feminists who argue that a male feminist is a contradiction in terms, and there's a more widespread view that even sympathetic men are too embedded in their own gender privilege properly to appreciate what it's like for women.) No feminist would claim that all or even most women were de facto feminists, though they might claim that all women should be. There are plenty of female misogynists, women who collaborate with "the patriarchy", women who make life worse for other women, women who vote Conservative, and so on, in the feminist demonology. Indeed, feminists reserve a particular and gleeful bile for these traitresses to their gender - above all for female Tory politicians such as Nadine Dorries - that a visitor from the planet Mars might think looked just a tad misogynistic.

But even allowing for the fact that all women aren't feminists, one would expect to find a considerable overlap between feminism and the concerns and views of women more generally. If, as they believe, feminists are working to advance the cause of women, one would expect feminist arguments to find a particular resonance among women and a greater degree of opposition or indifference from men. In would be highly paradoxical if feminist arguments turned out to be more popular, on average, with men than with women.

There is indeed a gender divide on the abortion debate in Britain, and it is especially stark in relation to the question of term limits. A YouGov poll in January found that of the 37% of Britons who favoured a lowering of the 24 week limit (34% supported the status quo) the majority were women. In total, twice as many women as men (49% as opposed to 24%) wanted to see a lower limit. There was also an interesting age difference: among the younger age group (18-24) support for a lower limit stood at 43%, whereas in the two older age groups it was 35%. Strikingly, support for a reduction to 20 weeks or below was highest among people who expressed a preference for Labour rather than the two other main parties - which again fits ill with the concept of a "Tory war on women".

This gender distinction seems to be consistent. An Angus Reid poll in March found an even more dramatic difference, with 35% of men favouring a reduction below 24 weeks and 59% of women doing so. Back in 2006, a MORI poll published by the Guardian found that 47% of women wanted to lower the limit, and a further 10% would ban abortion outright.

I wondered aloud about this paradoxical situation on Twitter last night. Pro-choice feminists, I noted, almost never acknowledge the perhaps counterintuitive fact that the majority of those who support their position on abortion time-limits are men, and the majority of those who want a reduction are women. Why are men more "feminist" that women, at least in this one area? A number of responders simply refused to believe it. Someone suggested that "kyriachy operates by convincing disenfranchised groups to defend the system," which may or may not be the same point as "women have always hated women far more effectively than men have", which was how another woman put it.

Another suggestion was that women are more likely to have strong opinions one way or another, since the issue affects them most directly. Even women who have never had an abortion may have contemplated one, or have had a pregnancy scare, or at the very least have thought through the issues. To have, or not to have, an abortion is a question that almost every woman might potentially have to ask herself, and no man will. Men might well consider that it is not their place to tell women what to do "with their own bodies", while women may have no such inhibition. What is less obvious is why the fact that abortion is so much more personal for women would lead a majority of them to superficially unfeminist conclusions.

One respondent (a man) suggested that "because women with children have experienced being pregnant, therefore they are more aware that the foetus is alive." It would certainly be interesting to know how the opinions of women who had children compared with those who did not. The only hint from the polls was in that striking figure from YouGov that women under 24 were more strongly in favour of lowering the time limit than those in older age-groups who are much more likely to be mothers themselves - which is quite the opposite of what my interlocutor would have expected.

Women who favour further restrictions on abortion might well deny the assumption that a pro-choice position is a feminist one, claiming instead that a liberal abortion regime benefits men. If women have easy (and socially unstigmatised) access to abortion, then men may feel less responsibility for the women they get pregnant or for any resulting child. Men are likely to feel less pressingly the physical and psychological consequences of abortion. So they will be only to happy to concede women's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, and fear the implications for themselves of more legal restrictions. Such a view is not unknown even in radical feminist circles. Catherine McKinnon once wrote that "abortion facilitates women's heterosexual availability" and "frees male sexual aggression."

Or perhaps it's just that, on average, men are more responsive to abstract arguments that tend to favour the principle of choice and personal autonomy, while women (again, on average) may be more swayed by emotive images of unborn children with fingernails and smiles.

One thing that does seem clear to me is that the pro-choice position depends less on a feminist argument than on a libertarian one. It says that a woman is, first and foremost, her own person, belonging neither to her family nor to her community or religion nor to her biological destiny but to herself. It asserts the primacy of the individual over the community and offers a scientifically reductionist view of the foetus as being essentially a biological fact and not yet a human being with rights. Research consistently shows that men are more responsive than women to libertarian arguments; women's instincts tend more to the communitarian. So perhaps we should expect men to "get" the pro-choice case more readily than women, despite the assumption that pro-life is anti-women. In this matter at least feminism goes with the grain of male nature and against the female.

But hang on a minute. Isn't libertarianism supposed to be right-wing? Aren't pro-choice feminists predominantly of the left? Is it not true that the most vocal campaigns for abortion restriction are rooted on the political right, especially on the religious right? It is. I merely point out the paradox. I do not purport to account for it.

Pro-life supporters campaign for a shorter time limit for abortions outside the House of Commons in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.