Is is bravery or masochism that’s prompted Medhi Hasan to jump straight back into the fire by regaling the world with his list of “10 Things I Learned From Debating Abortion On Twitter“? Who knows for sure, but as the article is up at HuffPo I suppose the one thing we can be sure of is that he can’t have been motivated by the paycheck.
The question is, has he actually learned anything or his he just flapping his gums in a desperate attempt to save face after getting his ass royally handed to? I suppose we should take a look at his list and see for ourselves…
1) LANGUAGE MATTERS. A LOT.
First and foremost, I do deeply regret saying that supporters of abortion rights (not women, per se, by the way!) “fetishise… selfishness”. Both words are, of course, deeply provocative and negative and I wish, with the benefit of hindsight, that I’d never used them.
Now, some on my side of this argument might say that the dictionary definition of “selfishness” – i.e. “concerned primarily with one’s own interests” – makes the word relevant to this debate, on an abstract, ethical level, but that is beside the point. My use of it in this piece caused needless offence and hurt and, for that specifically, I want to apologise – especially to any female readers who have had to undergo an abortion, something I, of course, as a man, will never have to go through.
I normally write quite polemical and provocative columns but, when writing this particular piece, I did try to be careful and restrained in my use of language and avoid gratuitous abuse of my opponents – clearly, I wasn’t careful or restrained enough.
Actually, this question of ‘selfishness’ is not simply an abstract, ethical question, it’s one that can, to a considerable degree, be addressed empirically if only one takes the time to investigate exactly why women choose to have an abortion
That’s exactly that Laurence Finer and others at the Guttmacher Institute did back in 2004. They gave 1,209 abortion patients at 11 large service providers a structured questionnaire to complete which asked them to identify the issues that influenced their decision to have an abortion – you can download the full paper from here but to save time I’ve also pulled out the main results table so we can look directly at what these women had to say for themselves.
The thing that leaps out most immediately from these result is the high proportion of women who gave one or more reasons that relate directly to what they perceive to be their ability to provide a child with a stable home/family environment and an appropriate level of care, considerations that one cannot reasonably call selfish.
So, yes, one really shouldn’t label women as selfish for either having an abortion or, at the very least, demanding that they should have the right to abortion, not because it offends some people nor even because its an abstract proposition that may or may not be relevant to the debate but simply because the evidence tells us that its just not true.
2) LABELS MATTER. ON BOTH ‘SIDES’.
Many commenters on Twitter took offence at my self-identification as ‘pro-life’. Now, I readily admit that ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are inaccurate, unhelpful and quite loaded phrases (who is anti-life? who is anti-choice?) – but what are the alternatives? What else do we have? In his blogpost in response to my column, Hope Sen embraces the phrase ‘pro abortion’ but I know that many abortion-rights activists recoil from its implications. Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez (@weekwoman) have no right to criticise me for using the term ‘pro-life’ if they, at the same time, uncritically embrace the equally propagandistic and useless term ‘pro-choice’.
No. sorry but that’s just bullshit.
One of the few labels I’m content to wear these days is pro-choice because I consider women to be fully sentient, rational, thinking moral agents who are perfectly capable of choosing for themselves whether or not they wish to continue with or terminate a pregnancy. In fact, up until around 24-25 weeks gestation, when the issues, for me, get rather more complicated for reasons to do with the neurological development of the foetus, I can honesty say that I spectacular unconcerned with the reasons why individual women choose to terminate pregnancies. As long as they’ve mentally competent (in legal terms), have been given honest, accurate, information about the clinical risks associated with the procedure itself and they’re not being coerced in ending the pregnancy then its their choice whether or not to have an abortion, all of which makes ‘pro-choice’ a perfectly satisfactory way of describing my personal position on abortion and one that is not in the slightest bit misleading, propagandistic or useless.
‘Pro abortion’ doesn’t work for me or for anyone else I know who is pro-choice because no one is really pro-abortion. We’d all much rather women didn’t get pregnant in the first place if they don’t actually want to have a baby, but real life often doesn’t work out like that so we have to take the next best option of accepting that they have a right to choose not to carry a pregnancy to term, if they don’t want to have a baby.
‘Pro-life’ is a very different matter as George Carlin once pointed out – although, to be fair, he was speaking for an American perspective that may not accurate reflect Mehdi’s own perception of the term as he applies it to himself:
Boy, these conservatives are really something, aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neonatal care, no day care, no head start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you’re preborn, you’re fine; if you’re preschool, you’re fucked.
Conservatives don’t give a shit about you until you reach “military age”. Then they think you are just fine. Just what they’ve been looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers. Pro-life… pro-life… These people aren’t pro-life, they’re killing doctors! What kind of pro-life is that? What, they’ll do anything they can to save a fetus but if it grows up to be a doctor they just might have to kill it’.
And before any complains that that’s all a bit harsh, that’s just George’s preamble:
They’re not pro-life. You know what they are? They’re anti-woman. Simple as it gets, anti-woman. They don’t like them. They don’t like women.They believe a woman’s primary role is to function as a brood mare for the state.
Pro-life… You don’t see many of these white anti-abortion women volunteering to have any black fetuses transplanted into their uteruses, do you? No, you don’t see them adopting a whole lot of crack babies, do you? No, that might be something Christ would do. And, you won’t see a lot of these pro-life people dousing themselves in kerosene and lighting themselves on fire. You know, morally committed religious people in South Vietnam knew how to stage a goddamn demonstration, didn’t they?! They knew how to put on a fucking protest. Light yourself on FIRE!! C’mon, you moral crusaders, let’s see a little smoke. To match that fire in your belly.
As for ‘who is anti-choice?’, well sorry but from everything I’ve seen so far, you are Mehdi.
Accepting that you’re in the minority and stating that you’re not trying to change the law doesn’t really alter the essential character of your position, which is anti-choice. Nor, despite your best efforts in that direction, are you anywhere close to pulling off a Biden by making your anti-abortion views clear in a principled way that people can respect even if they vehemently disagree with you.
You still haven’t understood the problem here, which isn’t abortion or the general tone of the wider abortion debate, but about your own self-image. You like to think of yourself as a ‘progressive’ but you can’t square that without own reactionary views on abortion and the cognitive dissonance is fair screaming of the page as a result.
Relax, it’s no biggie. Scratch the surface of most people and you’ll quickly find a big old bundle of unresolved contradictions, that’s just how people are. Human beings aren’t always consistent in their views, you just to learn to accept that that includes you and stop making a spectacle of yourself by trying to pretend otherwise just for the sake trying to live up to a ridiculous ideological facade.
That’s what Joe Biden got right, last week – he didn’t try to pretend that his views on abortion are left-wing, he just admitted to being a Catholic and made it easy for people to separate his religious position on abortion from his political views on other matters. He didn’t do anything particularly clever there, he just toed the line that John F Kennedy set back when he faced questions about the extent to which his religious beliefs might influence his political actions as President and gave much the same answer. Yes, I’m a Catholic but I also believe firmly in America’s secular constitution and its by the latter that I’ll abide while I’m President.
3) TWO SIDES TO EVERY ARGUMENT? NOPE
What became apparent quite quickly yesterday is that, for some ‘pro choicers’, there aren’t two sides to every argument. I was told again and again by commenters on Twitter that there is no legitimate ‘pro life’ (or ‘anti choice’) position – which makes some of the the criticisms of my use of the words “selfishness” and “fetishise” (see point 1 above) a little irrelevant. It slowly dawned on me, at about 5pm on Sunday evening, that no matter how politely, gently and sensitively the anti-abortion case is expressed in the future, people on the ‘pro-choice’ liberal-left will never want to hear it. As Hopi Sen put it: “Every other argument, no matter how complex or technical, becomes secondary… 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.” Or as one commenter on Twitter put it: “One thing that really gets on my nerves about @mehdirhasan’s comments is that there isn’t even a debate to be had about abortion.” Er, ok..
Well that’s politics for you, just go re-read Orwell’s ‘Notes on Nationalism‘ and file the experience under ‘damn, but that kitchen was hot’.
Seriously, if you haven’t figured out by now that Orwell was right on the money when he wrote that:
As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort. If the chosen unit is an actual country, such as Ireland or India, he will generally claim superiority for it not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking.
And that Orwell’s definition and analysis of nationalism applies just as readily to religion and political ideology then what the fuck are doing dabbling in politics in the first place.
4) FORGET THE FOETUS
I received hundreds and hundreds of tweets yesterday; the vast majority of them were critical of my position and a significant chunk of those were abusive. I can count on two hands the number of commenters who engaged with my claim that “a baby isn’t part of [a woman’s] body” and has rights of its own. If I am guilty of not giving due weight and attention to women’s rights in my piece – and my critics do have a point here – then the ‘pro choicers’ online were equally guilty of ignoring the foetus, being unwilling to engage in the debate over ‘personhood’ and, in some shocking cases, dehumanising the foetus in order to score a point. I was astonished by the number of commenters on Twitter who referred to the foetus as a “cancer”, a “lump of flesh”, a “parasite” and a “cake” (as in, “cake in the oven”).
The Independent’s Musa Okwonga says this morning that he has “never known a woman considering abortion who has not thought, long and heart-breakingly hard, of the unborn child”. I’m sure that’s true – but, sadly, the afore-mentioned tweets might suggest that’s not always the case.
Well, you know, maybe if you’d have gone to the trouble of putting an actual argument behind your claim that foetus isn’t part of a woman’s body and has rights of its own then you might just have given people something to engage with. At the very you might convinced more people that you actually have an argument rather an unstructured and ill-thought out bunch of emotion wibble to being to the debate.
Oh, and as for Musa ‘never known a woman considering abortion who has not thought, long and heart-breakingly hard, of the unborn child’ Okwonga, just fuck right off with all the patronising stereotypes will you. Some women find the decision to have abortion difficult and emotional and some women don’t…
… because woman are people and people are fucking different.
If Musa has genuinely never met a woman who didn’t agonise over the fate of their unborn child then he really nets to get out more and talk to more women because he might just get the idea that they’re not all the fucking same. Although, of course, the guy might just have easily have met plenty of women who’ve had abortions but didn’t agonise over it, they just didn’t tell him that because they can’t be entirely sure that he’s not the kind of judgemental prick who’d think less of them if they didn’t conform to his preferred female stereotype.
5) IT’S ALL ISLAM’S FAULT!
Muslims, it seems, aren’t allowed to have independent political or moral views. Within minutes of my piece being published online yesterday morning, the precocious (pompous?) Economist reporter Daniel Knowles accused me of being “dishonest” about the real reason for my ‘pro-life’ position which was driven by…wait for it…yes, Islam! Despite the fact that Islamic law has no fixed, single position on abortion and despite me making clear in the piece that I would be anti-abortion “even if I were to lose my faith”. To be fair, Knowles later apologised and deleted the tweet. Still, would a Jewish or Hindu journalist be accused of hiding the ‘real reasons’ for their views, in a similar fashion, I wonder?
Well actually, Mehdi, Muslims aren’t, strictly speaking, allowed to have any independent political or moral views; Islam has no concept of a separation between the secular and the religious so politics and morality are, by definition, religious. You may well not subscribe to that view personally but that is the foundation of the Islamic worldview.
As for as your own religious background goes, it may be unfair of some people to assume that your religion determines your views on abortion but it is nevertheless a fair question for people to ask, particularly in the context of the wider abortion debate and the dishonest tactics adopted by the fundamentalist Christian right, so its inevitable that the question is going to crop up, especially when you fail to put up a cogent argument to support your position.
Oh, and you didn’t really help yourself back there by denying that Islam has any bearing on your views, in one breath, before going on to argue that even if you didn’t believe in god you’d still be anti-abortion. It may not quite have clicked yet, but that does look just a bit contradictory.
If I we’re you, I’d blame Nadine Dorries and leave it at that…
6) MY OPPONENT’S OPPONENT IS…NOT MY FRIEND
So you have learned something then – for those who missed it, part of Dorries’ idea of rushing to Mehdi’s ‘defence’ included whining about the New Statesman and The Guardian had published article that ‘lied’ about her motive, which would be funny were she not both a Member of Parliament and utterly deluded at the same time.
7) UNHITCH FROM THE HITCH
Quoting the late, not-so-great Christopher Hitchens at the outset of my column was a bad move. “I don’t know why you bother to cite Hitchens,” tweeted the Times‘ Janice Turner. “His sexual politics appalling. Reductive about anything which matters for women.” Labour councillor Ed Davie tweeted: “quoting drunk, turncoat, neocon Hitchens shows weakness of anti-choice argument”. Ouch.
Yep, that was Hitch alright – told you not to expect people to be consistent, especially the Hitch.
8) NOT-SO-FREE SPEECH
The reaction from left-liberal, ‘pro-choice’ commenters on Twitter yesterday reminded me that the right may have a point when they object to the left’s shrill, one-sided, close-minded response to any attempt to debate certain social and ethical issues. In the wake of yesterday’s Twitterstorm, I was depressed to find myself nodding along to a leader in today’s Telegraph: “[T]he most notable feature of the current debate is not the victimisation of those who have abortions, but the vilification of those who in any way criticise the system.”
On a related note, on Thursday, I was told by David Aaronovitch at a debate in the LSE that Muslims need “to get a thicker skin” and “be less touchy”. Yesterday, I discovered that those who are liberally-inclined on abortion are quite touchy and have very, very thin skins. Oh, and many of them believe that half the world’s population (i.e. men) should not have a say on one of the world’s most controversial and important moral issues.
You seriously think that the right may have a point? The same right whose main contributions to online political debate between 2005 and 2010 consisted to ‘ZaNULiebor’ and ‘Gordon Brown is a nutter’. That’s not the pot calling the kettle black, that ‘s the kettle nipping down to Argos to buy a white kettle and tin of black paint, painting the kettle black and then calling it black.
As for this ‘free speech’ thing, you really seem to struggling with the basics here, so let me explain how it works.
If one person uses to Twitter to inform you that they think you’ve been a bit of a twat then they’re exercising their right to free speech and this has no effect whatsoever on your own right to free speech.
And, if 25,000 people use to Twitter to inform you that they think you’ve been a bit of a twat then they’re still only exercising their right to free speech and this still has no effect whatsoever on your own right to free speech.
Your right to free speech is in no way affected by the number of people who think you’ve been a bit of twat and choose to tell you so, even if the criticism gives you a bad case of butthurt.
If people start threatening you and your family or if they take their distaste for your position offline and start writing to the New Statesman to demand that you lose your job, then they’re infringing – or at least trying to infringe – your right to free speech.
The right to free speech does not include the right to be sheltered from criticism, the right to dictate the terms of the debate or the right not be offended. If you think some people are being unnecessarily abusive then block them. If they step over the line into threats, incitement to violence or personal harassment then report the matter to the police, but if all you done is said something stupid on the internet and found yourself on the wrong end of a dogpile then, sorry, you’ll just have to suck it up, grow a pair and try and learn from the experience.
Sorry, but you’re not making an argument here about free speech, you’re just illustrating, yet again, that many old media journalists still have come to terms wit the fact that they now live in world where their audience can answer back, which is actually a good thing for both free speech and democracy.
9) WE ARE NOT ALONE
‘Pro-life’ lefties do exist – several well-known individuals emailed and DM-ed me their support. But they were afraid to do so publicly. Yesterday’s Twitter mob frenzy (see points 3 and 8 above) will only have reinforced their conviction that if you’re a progressive and ‘pro-life’, it’s best to lie low. One well-known female journalist told me recently: “I can’t write about this issue.”
And your point is?
Look, if some people choose to ‘lie low’ because they can’t face a bit of unpopularity or, more to the point, because because they don’t like having the contradictions between their self-image as a progressive and their reactionary views on abortion pointed out to them then that’s their choice, the right to free speech does include the right to keep your mouth shut rather than make an idiot of yourself, a fact that some people – Richard Littlejohn, for example – would do well to remember every once in a while.
10) I GIVE UP
The truth is that abortion is too heated, emotive and complex an issue to debate in 140 characters. Or, for that matter, in 950 words.
In conclusion, I wrote this column, not because I wanted to have a row about abortion or “climb on a bandwagon” (as bandwagon-climber-in-chief Diane Abbott claimed in a tweet), but because I desperately wanted “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”.
Okay, so that’s two things you’ve learned – Nadine Dorries isn’t your friend and Twitter’s a lousy place to try and hold a complex debate – good for you.
However, the one thing you don’t seem to have learned from all this is that if you want people to understand and respect your views and not regard you as a right wing reactionary or medieval misogynist then you have to put up some sort of cogent argument to back up your position. ‘You can’t call me that because I’m a lefty’ just isn’t an argument any more than ‘But I’m a good person because I’m Christian’.
The dumb thing here is that if all you’d have said, like Joe Biden, is ‘Look, I have a moral objection to abortion which is based my religious beliefs’ then that would have been a perfectly respectable position for you to have taken. It’s one I personally disagree with but its at least an honest position and that’s something I can respect.
What pisses people off about the Christian right isn’t the religious foundations of their position its the persistent use of lies, misrepresentations and bullshit to conceal their full agenda and rook the general public into supporting changes in abortion law for which there is no objective justification. Nadine Dorries isn’t widely disliked because she’s religious or even because she’s anti-abortion, its because she’s full of shit and wholly incapable of arguing her position honestly.
That’s the real problem here, the anti-abortion lobby is in the minority and, frankly, its long since lost the moral argument on abortion with the general public, which it knows perfectly well, so it lies about everything from its motives and actual agenda to the clinical evidence on women’s mental health and, most egregiously and unforgivably, on breast cancer, right the way through to the actual nature of the abortion laws that operate across different countries in Europe. It wants impose its views on abortion on everyone else and it doesn’t care how it does it as long its gets its own way in the end, and its for that reason that a lot of people get a bit tetchy about terms like ‘pro-life’, because its a term that is associated primarily with abject dishonesty.
Yesterday’s Twitter responses show that I failed to persuade them to do so. Partly, through a loose use of language (i.e. “selfishness”, “fetishize”, etc); partly, however, because sections of the ‘pro-choice’ liberal-left aren’t willing to acknowledge that abortion isn’t a black-and-white issue; it’s a complex moral debate, involving rights and responsibilities, life and death, on which well-meaning, moral people come to different ethical conclusions.
Sorry, Mehdi, but you failed, ultimately, because you didn’t have a cogent argument to put to people, because you don’t really understand the dynamics of the debate, or its recent history, and because you didn’t bother to do your research and, as a result, repeated the exact same bullshit about European abortion laws that the anti-abortion lobby have been peddling. You not only managed to build your castle in a swamp, you also succeeded in pulling it down on top of you from the very moment that you pushed the ‘publish’ button.
To go back to my original column, which so few on Twitter seemed to have bother to read before unleashing their hate, anger and bile:
“One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is that it’s asymmetric: the two sides are talking at cross-purposes. 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’.”
Yes, we already know perfectly well that some of the moral arguments in this debate are incommensurable but what you don’t seem to appreciate in all this is that the majority pro-choice position, which is based on an acceptance of the current legal framework for legal abortion, give or take the issues of the ‘two-doctor’ rule and abortion on request during the first trimester, is one in which the incommensurability of the moral arguments has already been carefully considered and the arguments balanced to arrive at a position which is by no means perfect but which nevertheless offers a ‘solution’ that we consider reasonable given the complex issues at stake.
That’s not true of the so-called ‘pro-life’ side of the debate where any allusions to the notion of compromise are only feigned and where the real agenda is one which would result in the total, or near total prohibition of abortion.
One is an honest position, the other isn’t and until that sinks in then won’t have learned anything like as much as you’d like to think, and nothing much of real value, so maybe it is best that you retire from the field of battle on this occasion