Mehdi Hasan, political director of the Huffington Post UK, has an essay in the current issue of the New Statesman, of which he was until recently the political editor, arguing that the progressive stance on abortion is to oppose it. The article inevitably created a storm on Twitter and elsewhere on the web, a storm at which Hasan took umbrage. ‘Time to add abortion to the list of issues – Islam, Iran’s nuclear programme etc – that can’t be discussed on Twitter’, he tweeted. He added that he was ‘v disappointed that lefties have confirmed every rightwing prejudice today: we close down debate, we enforce orthodoxies etc’. I will return later to the response to Hasan’s argument, but first a few words on his pro-life argument:
‘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.’
To pose the issues in this fashion is, as Mehdi Hasan must know, to distort the debate almost to meaninglessness. Yes, pro-abortionists talk about ‘choice’, but in slating ‘selfishness and unbridled individualism’ Hasan is willfully confusing the promotion of consumer choice and free market policies with the (collective) struggles that women have had to wage to win the right to make basic decisions about their own bodies. And yes, the right often talks of ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ but it is striking that such equality and rights seemingly apply in this case only to the fetus and not to the woman.
The right to abortion is important because without the right to have control of their bodies in the way that men do women cannot enter the public sphere on an equal footing. The defence of abortion rights is, therefore, the opposite of what Hasan suggests: not the assertion of individual selfishness, but the protection of that which is necessary for women fully to engage in collective life and not be tied to the private sphere. In any case, to deny women choice in this context is not to remove choice from the picture; it is simply to assert the right of someone else to make those choices for women. In what way is that to promote equality?
Hasan makes the same error as many rightwing free marketers: he sees ‘autonomy’ and ‘society’ as somehow opposed to each other, contrasting ‘socialism (with its emphasis on equality, solidarity and community)’ with ‘liberalism (with its focus on individual freedom, autonomy and choice)’. In fact it is only in relation to others than individual autonomy can find expression. And it is only through the nurturing of autonomy that social relations can flourish. Or, to put it another way, if we truly want to defend ‘equality, solidarity and community’, we also, paradoxically, have to defend ‘individual freedom, autonomy and choice’. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate over abortion.
‘”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?’
Hasan assumes here what he needs to demonstrate. His starting point is that a fetus’ humanity is a given and therefore not to protect it is to refuse to protect the weak and the vulnerable or to give voice to the voiceless. But whether or not a fetus is a ‘child’ or a ‘baby’ is precisely what the abortion debate is about.
The issue of abortion raises profound questions about what it means to be human, about when and how do we become human, about the nature of rights, and about who possesses them. Hasan was, of course, writing a magazine column, not a philosophical treatise. Nevertheless, if he wants to accuse supporters of abortion rights, and indeed women who have abortions, of ‘selfishness and unbridled individualism’, of not ‘protecting the weak and vulnerable’, or ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’, then he has to root those accusations in some real argument. If he wants to attack pro-abortionists for not defending ‘vulnerable children’ or ‘mute babies’, he has first to make the case that a fetus is a child or a baby that needs protection in the way that a child or a baby postpartum requires protection. This he signally fails to do. And this failure suggests that Hasan, like many pro-lifers, is simply deploying dog-whistle imagery and emotional rhetoric as a means of avoiding answering those difficult questions.
So let us (very) briefly tackle some of the questions that the abortion debate raises. A cell created by a fusion of egg and sperm is (if we ignore the possibility of cloning) a necessary condition of being a human being. It is not a sufficient condition. A human being is created in the long journey from being a single almost-invisible cell to becoming a self-conscious moral agent. That change does not happen at any one instant, but slowly and over time, so that, almost imperceptibly, a qualitatively different being is created. But while this is a process, and there is no point at which a ‘non-human’ becomes a ‘human’, or a ‘non-person’ becomes a ‘person’, there are moral boundaries that mark qualitative shifts. Birth is one of those boundaries.
A fetus is a physical part of woman’s body. That is why we talk of ‘a woman’s right to choose’. Abortion is not about the killing of another human being but about a woman exercising her right to control her own body. The moral status of a fetus that is wanted, and that the woman sees as an unborn child, is different from the moral status of an unwanted fetus that she wishes to abort. Most societies recognize this in the moral and legal distinctions they draw between the abortion of an unwanted fetus and the killing of a wanted one.
Birth transforms that relationship. An entirely physical attachment becomes primarily, and increasingly, social. A fetus is an extension of the physical body of a woman. A newborn is part of the moral community of humans. Its moral status no longer depends upon the desires of the woman but derives from its membership of the moral community. In that change lies the moral difference between a fetus and a newborn, and between abortion and murder.
To put it another way, to be human is not simply a matter of biology, as Hasan and other pro-lifers seem to assert. Certainly there are physical, biological, genetic markers and boundaries that define us as human. But one also becomes human through a process by which we are socialized into the human community. To ignore that is to ignore a fundamental aspect of human existence that, to the left, is vitally important.
‘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”.’
It is true that a 24-week old fetus is not simply a ‘blob of protoplasm’. But neither is it a human being or a person. A fetus is physically attached to the mother’s body. Its relationship to the human world is primarily neither social nor moral but through that physical attachment. Hence, uniquely, its moral status derives, as I have already suggested, from the way that the woman views it, either as an unborn child or as an unwanted fetus.
A newborn may be physically helpless but it is not physically attached to another human being, and there is a qualitative change in its relationship to the wider human world. That relationship is now primarily, and increasingly, social and moral. One does not, in other words, have to see a fetus as a ‘blob of protoplasm’ not to see it as a human person, or as possessed of rights that trump those of the woman.
‘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 do I. I, too, had the same feelings of awe and wonder and astonishment in watching the scans of my daughter, and at her birth. But that was because I, and my partner, had already thought of her as a person. Had the circumstances been different, however, and had my partner had to have an abortion, my response, and hers, would undoubtedly have been different. To use a parent’s response to the scan of a fetus that they regard as a person as a means of undermining the response of a woman who does not regard a fetus in the same way, and who wants to have an abortion, is once more to deploy emotional rhetoric in place of reasoned argument.
‘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.’
It is a claim that Hasan continued on Twitter following the publication of the article. ‘I get called ‘evil’, a ‘dickhead’, ‘sexist’, ‘mysogynist’, a ‘dictator’ and ‘the enemy’’, he complained. ‘So much for having a debate on a moral issue…’. He warned others against taking a pro-life stance: ‘You will get lynched online!’
I disagreed with much of the abuse that was thrown at Hasan; and it is true that there is often a mob mentality directed at those who challenge liberal orthodoxies. But before getting too heated about the invective coming his way, perhaps Hasan could have looked at the construction and language of his own argument. His ‘you’re all so horrid to me’ accusations are a bit rich coming from someone who began his article by dismissing his critics as ‘fetishising selfishness and unbridled individualism’ and as being heartless about the ‘weak and vulnerable’, and who quotes Christopher Hitchens to the effect that ‘to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain . . . break some bones and rupture some organs.’ This is hardly an expression of the calm, reasoned argument that Hasan supposedly champions.
‘No other leftie’, Hasan tweeted, ‘will dare touch this subject given the ludicrous reaction I got today.’ All I can say is that I’m glad that supporters of abortion rights have thicker skins. Some of the abuse thrown at Hasan might have been unwarranted, but it was exceptionally mild compared to the vitriol (and, indeed, violence) continually directed at abortion activists, and indeed at women wanting abortions. Replacing rational debate with emotional rhetoric has been the hallmark of much pro-life argument. If Hasan really wants to challenge those who aim to stymie free speech and cut down reasoned debate, he might begin by looking more closely at pro-life tactics. Hasan wrote the article to elicit a response. He got the response. Then to play the victim card – that was what was truly ludicrous.
Let me return finally to the question of whether the pro-life stance is a progressive position. It is true that one can oppose abortion and not necessarily be a ‘right-wing reactionary or medieval misogynist’. It is also true that many who oppose abortion are indeed ‘right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists’. The fact is, the argument for abortion rights came out of the struggle for women’s equality. Much of the argument against abortion rights comes from those opposed to such equality. The illusory rights of the fetus have been, and are being, used to curtail the real rights of women. If Hasan wants to make a left-wing case for opposition to abortion he will have to do more than pull at emotional heartstrings and play the victim.