I don’t want to pussy foot around this. I am not pro-choice, or pro women’s rights. I am pro abortion.
I believe, strongly, that it must be possible for a woman to abort a foetus, should she so choose. Not only that, I think it should not be an issue on which moral judgements are made about the decision of any woman to do so.
Are there reasons why a woman who might choose to make that decision make me, personally deeply uncomfortable? Of course. Yet on examination, each of these issues turns out to be a reflection of societal problems.
Whether it is gender selection, or disability, or late terminations. I feel, constantly, sharply, aware that I am not the one being placed in such a position. Instead, I am part of the social structure that puts women into a position where they feel they must make an awful decision.
So when I look at the choices others make where I feel an instinctive disapproval, I feel the judgmental gaze is, somehow going the wrong way, and should be turned back to me. Whenever I look into any apparent moral abyss, it looks straight back.
It comes down to this: Do I think that women have the ultimate right to decide whether they have children, or not? Yes, I do. Do I think life begins at the moment of conception, or can be clearly be defined as inviolable at some other point in gestation? No, I don’t.
Every other argument, no matter how complex or technical, becomes secondary to those fundamental positions.
What’s more, they feel like issues on which there is little room for compromise, and on which I am right, and those who disagree with me are, bluntly, wrong.
It is this awareness of my own extremism which makes me aware that I have very little chance of persuading those who I disagree with.
To convince an opponent, I think you need a certain emotional sympathy with what they are saying. In this case, my attempts at emotional sympathy turn to ashes in my mouth. Those I disagree with talk about their concern for the unborn. I hear the implication of a ‘superior’ concern, and a moral judgment implicit in their expression of social justice.
Equally, I expect I do the same. I talk of respecting the decisions of women, I expect my putative opponent hears an elision of the hardest cases, a refusal to think that women can make choices of which I disapprove. Perhaps they hear me speak of women’s rights, and hear only a sneer at their respect for women.
There’s also a side issue. I’m a man. Abortion is a decision I will never be faced with. So the chances of me saying something horrifically offensive, or idiotic, or thoughtlessly insulting grows exponentially with the amount I write or talk. This isn’t, in an important sense, my fight to pick. Maybe it should be, but then who the hell am I to elbow women out-of-the-way, to loudly express my opinions on this, of all subjects?
Despite this rather lengthy declaration of interest, I don’t think there’s much value to my particular opinion on abortion. Sometimes it’s best to let people know where you stand, then shut the hell up.
Instead, I want to respond to Mehdi Hasan’s article on the abortion debate not on whether he’s right or wrong about abortion, but because I think he rather jumps straight into the argument trap I describe.
In calling for a reasoned debate on abortion, and in asking for emotional sympathy for his moral position, Mehdi shows little or no emotional sympathy in return, then is offended when his lack of sympathy results in a furious response and finally is left perplexedly exclaiming that’s it’s impossible to have a rational debate with some people.
Mehdi introduces his article with a Hitchens quote which describes abortion as a process in which we ‘still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain . . . break some bones and rupture some organs‘. Violence, you see, perhaps even outright murder.
We are then told that those who support abortion “fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.”
In these paragraphs. the explicit point is about the ‘right wing’ nature of the arguments in favour of abortion.
The implicit rhetoric says something else too, however. It says – abortion is a violent, harmful act that places a fetish for choice and self-regard over human life.
Yet because it is presented as an argument about the values of left and right, the opposed reader is asked to ignore this assault on their decency, but rather invited to express sympathy with the motivation of the anti-abortion, pro-life groups, who by contrast to the violent selfish fetishisers “talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”.
This is made explicit a few sentences later, when we are asked
“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?
I suspect Mehdi here wants us to understand that his position on abortion is an extension of his belief in a common humanity. Instead, I hear a rather monstrous arrogance.
Not only does Mehdi presume to know that an unborn baby has a consciousness, a ‘voice’ that can be defined (which avoids a whole set of questions about who exactly is making such a preference, and at what point they become capable of asserting these preferences, and how exactly we know when these views are formed), but he appoints himself as the person best placed to identify what that voice would say. In other words, Mehdi is saying to women who have had an abortion that he knows better than them how their aborted foetus feels about them. He is the one speaking up for the unborn, after all.
I read this, and I am angry. Angry on behalf of women who have made a choice to not have a baby, and so made a choice that, however made, or for what cause, should surely not subsequently involve well-intentioned journalists telling them that they did not listen to the (imaginary) voice of their foetus.
Is this a rational response? Perhaps not. I think of particular women I know who have made this choice, and I confess, I want to shake the self-righteous little prick out of his excessive self-regard*.
Then, of course, I calm down. I don’t think this is Mehdi’s intent. I’m sure he believes he is merely asking for those who disagree with him to sympathise with his good intentions, to understand he is acting out of a concern for the commonweal. He seeks only our emotional sympathy.
Yet in doing this, Mehdi, (I think unconsciously), insults and denigrates those who disagree with him. He implies they are committing violence, fetishisers of selfishness, and are incapable of knowing, as he does, the voice of the unborn.
Read like this, Mehdi’s article is not the call for reasoned debate and understanding that he thinks he has written but a gross, personal insult.
Completely unsurprisingly, it was reacted to in exactly that way, and Mehdi was left wondering why people were so unsympathetic and unreasonable to his argument.
Well, perhaps I can tell Mehdi why he got the reaction he did from so many women. It’s because he called them selfish bone breaking, heartbeat stilling, fetishisers of their own rights who don’t listen to the unborn – and doesn’t even seem to notice that he did so.
So, in that light, perhaps Mehdi shouldn’t be too surprised if people get offended.
(and that’s why I don’t talk about abortion much, because I doubt I’ll have persuaded Mehdi of anything.)
*Mehdi has, understandably enough, objected to this as an ad hominem attack. Now, I don’t believe it is an ad hominem attack, I am not arguing that he is wrong because he is a self righteous little prick (SRLP), but rather confessing that his argument left me with a temporary rage during which I regarded him as a SRLP.
Further, I think in context it’s pretty clear that I am not saying Mehdi is, in truth, a SRLP. I start the paragraph by acknowledging the irrationality of my reaction, and begin the next sentence by saying that the intent I ascribed to him during my anger is misplaced. In other words, I’m not saying Mehdi Hasan is a SRLP, but that his argument left me with the reaction ‘Mehdi Hasan is a SRLP’, and that my reaction was understandable, even if incorrect, because of the (unintentional) offense the structure of his argument is bound to create due to his lack of emotional sympathy for his opponents.
Equally obviously, Mehdi doesn’t hear this, and just hears me calling him a SRLP, and as he feels that this is an offensive attack aimed at closing down debate, this puts in a state of high old dudgeon with me, which is fitting, as this reaction is itself a sort of QED for my original point about the distance between the point we seek to make and the reaction we can expect to get from the way we make our point.
In other words, I can’t really expect Mehdi to any more be chillaxed about being called a SRLP than he can expect people who have had abortions to feel utterly cool with him saying he speaks for their unborn foetuses.
Which is sort of why I said it, being the too clever by half dickhead I am. I leave it to the reader to decide whether being a temporary SRLP or a permanent TCBHD is worse.