pro-life lefty learns about the internet

Mehdi Hassan’s claim that “being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty” is plausible enough, but his attempt to make the case on Twitter (of all places!) was certainly misguided, and while some of the lessons he has learned are good ones his descriptions of others demonstrate the opposite of what he should have learned[1]. I won’t respond (beyond that extensive footnote) to the fact that his argument is less “reasoned and measured”  than he claims as that has already been done, but rather will boringly restrict myself to the technical issue itself.

No one seriously claims that the fetus is part of the mother’s body but it is undeniable that use of her body is comandeered for its support and also that her future life is impacted by the expectation of support through to adulthood (or by the need to make a more wrenching separation decision after its birth).  So yes indeed, “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.”

But although the “pro-lifers” speak about the right to life of the fetus and the “pro-choicers” speak about a woman’s right to choose, it’s not so much that these values are “incommensurable” in the sense of there being no consistent assignment of relative value as that there may be too many and we don’t agree on which one to use.  Anyone who comes down on one side or the other has succeeded in making the comparison but their priorities have been different from those on the other side.

And contrary to Hassan’s lesson(#4) we can’t “forget” about the fetus because that is one of the main issues. The fact that  I do not attribute the rights of personhood to a fetus does not amount to ignoring the possibility that it may have them. But after considering the matter to the best of my ability I conclude that it does not.  This involves consideration of what my reasons are for assigning such rights to anyone, and since I don’t accept the convenient but unsatisfying option of a religious fiat, the process of explaining it to someone else might not be easy.

But for me when it comes to restricting the right of action of a conscious mind the onus is on the restrictor to justify the restriction and not on the actor to justify the action.  This is not a libertarian position; I am quite ready to make a case for various restrictions of personal freedom. But restricting the freedom of a woman to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy is not one I have seen any convincing argument for. In fact the most commonly provided argument amounts to just asserting that the fetus has the same rights as a person – either without any justification other than “it feels that way to me”, or by reference to some religious authority. (And of course even if that assertion is accepted some might still raise the question of how much enforcable obligation a person has to support the life of another – ie not just whether they should but whether we have a right to force them to. It is commonly agreed that a parent has an enforceable obligation to provide the necessities of life for a child, but for a born child the possibility of giving it up for adoption means that the obligation is actually implicitly agreed to by the parent)

Hassan claims that his reasons for assigning full personhood rights (or at least right-to-life) to the fetus and for using that to deny the right of abortion to the mother are not based on his religion so I will certainly admit the possibility that he has some, but until he gives them we have no starting point.





[1] Some of the “lessons” Hassan claims to have learned demonstrate real enlightenment others are mere rhetorical tricks

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.

Good, but followed by a disappointing (but not extreme) bit of weaseling about the technical definition of “selfish”. Fortunately though, he ends this one with a re-acknowledgement of not having been sufficiently “careful and restrained in my use of language”

2) Labels matter. On both “sides”

Many commenters on Twitter took offence at my self-identification as “pro-life”. …[but they] 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”.

It’s true that engaging in label wars is unproductive, but those who do refrain from label use DO have the right to criticize. The correct response to either kind of “pro” label is to claim both of them for oneself. We are all pro-life AND pro-choice, but we may draw different boundaries when the two are in conflict.

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. …

This one is offensive because it’s always true in any argument that “for some” on EITHER side the other side is dismissed, and despite the weasel word “some” he only refers to blinkeredness on the OTHER side. And the only value of this lesson is if one applies it to ONESELF.

4) Forget the foetus

This starts with irrelevant whining about abusive responses (on Twitter no less! – duh) and goes on with

.. 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. ..

Not “score” but rather “emphasize”. Yes, some who deny the personhood of a foetus do so in a way that seems just intended to offend the opposite point of view, but again what do you expect? There’s plenty of screaming nastiness on both sides of any argument – especially in an unmoderated context like Twitter.

The lesson about recognizing that others do have concerns that need to be attended to does seem to have been heard by Hassan here, but to do so properly with the intent of really taking it to heart requires stopping to absorb it before jumping back with something like “but the other side is nasty too”.

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?

Oh come on! A Christian one certainly might be, and whether you would be anti-abortion “even if I were to lose my faith” depends on whether that loss of faith also includes loss of belief in the personhood of a fetus. That particular bit of faith may not be fundamental to Islam so in your case the accusation that your position is forced a priori by being a Muslim may be false. I suspect that there is a lot of misunderstanding around (including in my own mind) about what Islam does imply (as with all the other religions it’s really much like nailing jelly to the wall), but surely this is not a new “lesson” for you.

It is however a useful lesson for ME that I may be at risk of dismissing anti-abortion arguments from the religious of any kind as based on the religion when perhaps they could stand on their own.

6) My opponent’s opponent is… not my friend

This one is a good lesson for all of us – as is also “my opponent’s friend is not necessarily my opponent” or even “my opponent on this issue is not necessarily my opponent on that one”

7) Unhitch from the Hitch

I am not opposed to speaking ill of the dead but repeating gratuitous nastiness is uncalled for.

8) Not-so-free speech

The reaction from left-liberal, ‘pro-choice’ commenters on Twitter . . .

Oh don’t be silly. Anything said on Twitter about a controversial issue will generate a hail of abuse from a subset of the people who don’t like it and to interpret that as representative of a generally censorious attitude on the other side is unreasonable.

9) We are not alone

“Pro-life” leftiesdoexist . . .

Well duh! There is after all a significant Roman Catholic leftist tradition.

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 atweet), 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”.

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.

A good finish – except for the “I give up” heading. The lesson is not to “give up” (unless persuaded you are wrong), but to show (and encourage) the same respect for your opponents that you want for yourself and not to be surprised that there will always be some on both sides who don’t give it.

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