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.