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Being Wrong about Abortion

Before reading please click ‘View Entire Story’. My apologies for the length.

Over at the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan wrote an article against abortion. It’s not entirely clear whether Hasan is against all abortion (I doubt that), but that’s not entirely relevant for now.

Hasan’s piece is supposed to be about how being a “lefty” doesn’t mean you have to be pro-choice. Citing the late Christopher Hitchens’ emotionally-saturated, pro-life view, Hasan points out that this was a watershed moment in Hitchen’s left-wing politics.

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”.

That women have abortions for ‘possessive individualism’, that this ties into some kind of ‘selfish’ motivations indicative of an entire culture or generation, is a caricature — and a harmful one — of women’s situations. That old cartoon idea that women run around sucking out “unborn babies” so they can remain thin and single and – obviously – “slutty” should itself be aborted from the womb of debate.

Katha Pollitt, Hitchens’ colleague at The Nation, highlights the great man’s poor reasoning and his continual refusal to take on actual counter-arguments in the abortion debate, even years later. Hasan has highlighted the worst, not best, aspect of Hitchens. As Pollitt says: “That was the bad side of Christopher—the moral bully and black-and-white thinker posing as daring truth-teller.”

Hasan therefore has done himself a disservice by using Hitchens: both since Hitchens was wrong and because it was Hitchens at his worst.

But Hasan continues the caricature himself: 

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.

Notice the forced choice: the one side is linked to positive-sounding ideas like equality and human rights, while the other is saddled with something called “choice” and something called “unbridled individualism”. The cartoon comes alive again, it seems. Hasan writes so no nuance is allowed – but, more importantly, neither is reality.

Again, he caricatures women having control of their bodies, their emotionally taxing situations, the difficulty involved in creating children, and concluding maybe they shouldn’t carry it to term as “unbridled selfish” actions. No example is given by Hasan to demonstrate what constitutes this “unbridled selfishness” so I can only speculate on that area Mr Hasan seems to ignore: i.e. the reality of the situation.

“My body, my life, my choice.” Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed.

What are the alternatives? I’m not saying there are not any, but Hasan doesn’t tell us. Furthermore, I doubt pro-choicers would support someone using their body as a weapon to explode in a crowded area. There are limits, but we can discuss those reasonably. No one is helped when we caricature anything that’s not the conservative view of abortion as “unbridled individualism”, as choice being fetishized. Limits can be discussed; no one should imagine completelicence even of their own bodies.

Yes, a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body – but a baby isn’t part of her body.

Firstly, it’s not a baby. A cluster of cells is not a thing you can put a pacifier into. There are no prams for blastocysts.

Secondly, “not part of her body”? Sure, it’s just nourished by, supported by, dependent on, and grows within a woman’s body. Otherwise, yes: why should she be so concerned?

Thirdly, even if we accept Hasan’s strange assertion, we’ve already highlighted that this isn’t about complete licence of our bodies. I find little problem with voluntary amputation, necrophilia, suicide, but even I do not imagine all those are automatically not a concern for others. So yes, it is my body, I ought to be able to destroy it, cut it, or whatever. But it would be wrong if doing so would, for example, mean my wife/husband and children (etc.) would no longer have an income and suffer.

Limits must be discussed. The main problem is figuring out what those limits are, tracing the borders of our conflict. We get nowhere with those who consider broader limits mean non-existent ones. Tracing borders doesn’t mean rubbing them out.

I am convinced that, regardless of how “reasonable” a woman’s decision, abortion should be allowed (for everything from rape to disliking her child’s hair-colour): this must be accepted due the consistency of supporting a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body. Though this does appear to many to be a case of having no limits – “she can have an abortion because she dislikes red hair!”- the limits surround her ability to control her womb, as opposed to having it controlled by others.

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”

Mr Hasan confuses description for dismissal: it is a clump of cells and a blob of protoplasm (in the early phases). I’d like to see him feed this “baby”.

No doubt, like Hitchens, there is something significant because this clump of cells has the “potential” to become a full person (I don’t deny it is a human being). But, as bioethicist John Harris points out, we all have the potential to be corpses: shall we treat each other as dead? We don’t give medical licences to 5-year-olds with a fondness for stethoscopes. We deal with what the entity is.

Hasan then provides three points against the pro-choice left.

The first doesn’t concern us that much. Hasan is referring to the British Health Secretary “backing a reduction in the legal time limit for abortion from 24 to 12 weeks”. Hasan says the British left mustn’t complain because the current proposed legal time-limit to get an abortion is common everywhere in Europe and they are currently the “exception” (for not having it).

This is a rather a patronising assertion: “don’t complain because others have it worse” or “don’t complain because we’re the exception”.

As my friend Julien Lynn points out: “why does it matter what other European countries’ laws state? Aside from being a terrible first point in support of his ‘pro-life’ stance, this sentiment is flat out childish.” I wouldn’t call it childish, but it’s certainly unfounded and irrelevant.

Moving on.

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.

This ignores that many who are against abortion have made avowedly “anti-women” and “sexist” assertions. Smearing, I agree, is not helpful and, regardless of how wrong an opponent is, we should be trying as much as possible to engage with her arguments and ideas. Hasan, though, thinks that women apparently can’t themselves be opposed to women’s liberty; that by definition women can’t make arguments or be in favour of policies which undermine women’s (and freedom’s) progress. Indeed, in the next paragraph, Hasan highlights this very fact!

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.”

What makes these wrong isn’t that they’re against abortion – it’s the reasoning behind it. Again, it’s caricature – an infant isn’t a blastocyst (though we shouldn’t be against infanticide either); abortion is not a requirement to be a full member of society, though, like contraception, it can aid a woman to control her body and life to maintain her personal freedom.

De Jong’s assertion is, itself, speculation and assertion. It starts with “if”! Furthermore, if a woman wants an abortion – for whatever reason – so she can control her life, how does that give into “male convenience”? It’s exactly the burden of having a child, the denial of contraception, the stigma around single and promiscuous women, that is indicative of undermining women’s autonomy. Her freedom is perfectly encapsulated in her ability to not be imprisoned by virtue of her biology.

Furthermore, these appeals to polls and history don’t make Hasan’s arguments potent: they just show others have been just as wrong before.

Hasan finally says we shouldn’t throw “faith” at him. Again, highlighting Hitchens, Hasan says he’d be against it regardless of 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”.

I’m always worried when an article about abortion descends into, essentially, a baby-shower slide-show. Hasan might not need anyone to tell him what a person is, but he also shouldn’t expect anyone to take him seriously when he asserts his own definition. (A ‘person’ in bioethics is a being capable of rationality and self-consciousness. It is obvious that, for example, a blastocyst is incapable of this.)

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.

I agree that we shouldn’t demonise or caricature arguments against abortion. Hasan, unfortunately, has done that: bothto those arguments and the pro-choice ones. Secondly, I hope no one respects any views: ideas don’t deserve respect. People do. Demands for ideas’ respect are usually made by those who can’t defend them. When I make an argument, I don’t ask you to respect them: I ask you to respect me enough to point out their flaws, since I’m fallible and human, or otherwise support them based on your own reasoning. Respect is irrelevant to an argument’s validity.

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”.

MacIntyre is incredibly and beautifully wrong about morality. He is an opponent worth-wanting, who makes strong arguments against liberal ideas and arguments. However, his assertion of incommensurability is linked to his disparagement of The Enlightenment and reason: it’s what MacIntyre called Encyclopedia. However, MacIntyre himself caricatured the Enlightenment ideas in his books, especially in After Virtue. Again, Hasan is appealing to a writer at his worst. 

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.

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So what was the point of the article if it wasn’t about showing how a “lefty” could be against pro-choice? This paragraph stands out as if it’s ignorant of the rest of the piece. But it’s not that important.

What bothers me about this piece is that Hasan says he’s in the minority, that you need not worry about him, but doesn’t realise his position, if made law, undermines women’s autonomy. You can dress it up how you want; you can claim blastocysts and protoplasm are babies, you can claim to be defending biological life. But I’d think what matteres for liberals is the quality of life and a defence of a life capable of appreciating that freedom. All of these “lefty” principles are undermined when you dictate when and how women should control their bodies. That Hasan thinks wider limits mean no limits undermines the fight for personal autonomy for all.

Hasan, unfortunately, has not added to the abortion debate, has undermined both pro-choice and those opposed, and, finally, has only highlighted his own misrepresentations and caricatures of the reasons for supporting abortion. (His appeal to respect his views is not something to take seriously from anyone, by the way. Be wary of those who ask for this as opposed to defending it based on the actual strength of the claims and respect for the person himself.)

UPDATE: This issue is a getting a lot of attention. I realised I left out a part where Hasan writes about liberalism being about defending the weakest:

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? 

Kelly Hills replied: “Well, the abused woman, for one. But how about any woman who is still fighting for equality in a man’s world? It’s much easier, though, to fetishize the unborn and place yourself in the role of the noble champion of someone if that someone cannot actually tell you if your efforts are successful – or even appreciated.”

Looking at this paragraph, Edinburgh Eye responded: “So a woman ceases to exist as a human being, the instant she becomes pregnant? She does not have a voice, she does not deserve protection? She exists merely to be used by “society” to force her to give birth? That’s how you think of your wife, your daughters?”

I found this paragraph from Hasan too absurd to include, considering he paints everything in a woman’s womb as a “baby” (confirming again his mistreatment of the actual situation). I also can’t treat seriously the rhetoric of an “unborn child” being “mute”. 

See links on Edinburgh Eye’s post for more great responses to Hasan.

Image Credit: A human blastocyst, day 5 of conception/ Harimiao (source)


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