Abortion debate alert

// 30 October 2012

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I was pleased to see this recent piece from Mehdi Hasan talking about the ten things he had learned from trying to ‘debate’ abortion on Twitter.

I also don’t think he should have been personally attacked, and I agree that lots of us get rather (at times impolitely) impatient with both the so-called debate and the debaters that keep debating us. To say nothing of the fact that the Islamic doctrinal position on abortion is broadly one of acceptance with time limits, and in some cases without time limits where it will save a woman’s life – even the BBC knows that. So, his position is his, not The Muslim One.

But I don’t agree with his contention that us pro-choicers (accepting it’s an imperfect term) need to learn how to engage more and respect that this is

‘a complex moral debate, involving rights and responsibilities, life and death, on which well-meaning, moral people come to different ethical conclusions.’

My frustration at having to over and over explain why a pro-choice position is the only feminist position to take does not come from my inability to engage in reasonable debate over ethical dilemmas. It comes from an understanding that framing an attack on abortion rights as an ethical dilemma is itself unethical. Doing so at a time when our own Ministers of State seem to be leading such attacks is deeply irresponsible, too.

Fortunately, the Government has confirmed that it has no intention of changing the time limit. Nevertheless, Nadine Dorries is pursuing her endless campaign and has secured time for MPs to once again ‘debate’ abortion rights tomorrow. Situated against this, Mehdi’s musings become even more problematic.

I understand perfectly that some people are against abortion. But to force a woman to have a pregnancy she doesn’t want is inherently anti-choice, because it denies a woman the right to choose what happens to her body. It’s not that complicated.

Debating the right to abortion is for me like debating other established human rights principles, say the right to food or the right to housing. I’m happy to discuss the how of making them happen, and even the ethical dilemmas of living in a world where we allow people to be denied these rights (latest figures show almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night for example, and Shelter can attest that the UK’s homelessness problem increased last year). But what I’m much less interested in entertaining is a challenge to the idea that those rights are rights. That’s where I think we’d be moving into non-ethical positions, and the so-called ethical dilemmas would actually be red herrings.

Mehdi might come back and say, but what about the foetus’ right to life. Doesn’t that pose an ethical dilemma? Well, actually, that ‘dilemma’ has already been squared. See this toolkit (pdf) to read up on it.

So, if we’re gonna debate abortion rights, let’s spend it on the real feminist questions: how do we make sure our Government extends abortion rights to all women as it’s supposed to do, by eliminating the two doctor rule, scrapping the time limit, and extending the rights to all women in Britain, including Northern Ireland. The fact that other European countries fare no better or have similarly restrictive positions, which Mehdi thought justified not trying to advance things in the UK further, is not any kind of defence for our inadequate position. We are not in a race to the bottom.

In fact, the Government would do well to outline how it plans to deliver comprehensive sexuality education to young people, as it committed to do in April this year, so that we reduce the chances of a woman being faced with an unwanted pregnancy in the first place. That is, surely, at least one thing we can all agree we would love to see the end of.

Image of a cartoon red herring, with the word ‘herring’ written across it, by triveting7, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 31 October 2012 at 9:36 am

I have no time or respect for someone who wants to control what happens to my body and my life. I don’t see why I should have to be polite to someone who views my demands not to be forced to carry on with an unwanted pregnancy as “hysteria” and complains that women are “too touchy” about the issue of abortion. His arrogance and lack of empathy is astounding. Women cannot be truly free without the right to abortion. End of.

Lucy // Posted 31 October 2012 at 1:10 pm

I think what keeps getting brushed under the table by the ‘pro-lifers’ (I think the term in itself is wrong, because it has a certain ring to it that puts a sort evil, sulfurous glow from hell around any opinion opposing it) is that this isn’t a debate about having an abortion or not, but about having a choice.

It’s about a woman’s choice about what happens to her own body – because it is hers, and what happens to it should not be governed by any other person than her.

I think the ‘debate’ is grotesque in the sense that it almost sounds like people who are anti-choice think as long as women have the right to abortion, they’ll do their utmost to have one.

That is so not true. Women are not evil baby killers, who have abortions because they just love the idea of it. And the whole ‘killing’ label opens up a discussion unto itself, because when exactly the fetus becomes ‘a human being’ rather than a lump of cells? And who decides that?

I really believe that an abortion isn’t something that any woman would take lightly, but there are circumstances when a woman may want to terminate a pregnancy, and she should have the right to do so.

Also, I think we need to be mindful that the people who decide whether to pass anti-abortion laws or not are still overwhelmingly likely to be male. Even the debate, at least in the media, is often dominated by male voices. So this also boils down to men making decisions about women’s lives and women’s bodies.

I think at its heart, the abortion debate is mostly an attack on feminism and women’s authority about their own bodies, disguised under a cloak of ‘morality and compassion’.

Cycleboy // Posted 2 November 2012 at 10:00 pm

Lucy: you say that the ‘pro-lifers’ miss the point that “It’s about a woman’s choice about what happens to her own body – because it is hers, and what happens to it should not be governed by any other person than her.”

I’m no defender of the so-called pro-life position, but I think they’d argue that what you do with your own body might well be up to you in all other circumstances OTHER than pregnancy. They would argue that there is another life that also has rights which have to be taken into account.

Now, whether the life of the unborn has the same weight as that of the mother IS the point at issue. They would argue that it does. You would argue that it doesn’t, and I would agree with you. If you disagree with someone’s views, you have to address those views and undermine them. To simply state that, “It’s my body and I’ll do what I like with it.” would be no argument in their eyes and you would not be able to engage in any exchange of views as there’d simply be no common ground.

FD // Posted 3 November 2012 at 8:38 pm

The answer to the ‘fetus has rights’ line is that in no other circumstance, is anyone required to donate so much as a pint of blood, even if the circumstance is most dire, even if you are the only person in the world that could save that life, even if it is your child, even if you are already DEAD, your rights over your body are sovereign. To suggest women should be compelled to give over their bodies to the use of a fetus, is to give that fetus more rights than any born person.

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