In last week’s New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan wrote that abortion was “wrong.” He’s not alone in the view, of course. The Conservatives have just provided the country with not only a Health Secretary but a Minister for Women who would like to draw back a woman’s right to choose. Mehdi’s pro-life argument was different though: this one came, not from a right-wing regressive, but from a self-declared ‘lefty’.
Believing it is wrong for any woman to choose not to continue with a pregnancy, he argued, was actually the ‘progressive’ point of view.
We’ll put to one side the use of the quote that abortions “break some bones and rupture some organs,” though like Paul Ryan’s use of the emotive term “bean” in last week’s US Vice-Presidential debate, it’s neither honest or respectful (of the thousands of women who make this decision, yearly) to rely on such language.
Let’s also bypass the belief that a “baby isn’t part of [a woman’s] body”, though it is in her body and entirely unable to survive without it.
What really stood out was Mehdi’s claim that being left-wing and anti-choice were not mutually exclusive ethics. More than that, abortion was wrong because of, not in spite of, having progressive principles.
It doesn’t seem particularly ‘progressive’ to cite Mary Wollstonecraft being a feminist and anti-abortion, as Mehdi did, as some sort of supporting evidence (a thinker writing at a time when abortion risked a woman’s death and suggesting women weren’t the property of men was seen as radical). Social norms evolve. Human beings, through reason and experience, progress in their thinking and the improvement is celebrated. That’s what being progressive means. To see the past as a positive, to believe that a woman being anti-abortion in the eighteenth century should encourage a similar stance two hundred years later, is purely conservative.
Mehdi asks those defending abortion not to label ‘pro-lifers’ as “medieval misogynists,” yet, as unfortunate as it is for the lefty anti-choicer, there is both a sexism and an anachronism to any attempt to take a woman’s rights.
Implicit within any pro-life argument is the belief that a woman is – at least partly – a vessel to carry a child. If she chooses to have sex and accidently falls pregnant, then she is ultimately responsible and must, even if the thought repulses her, carry that ‘child’ within her body and go through childbirth. There is nothing ‘progressive’ about this reality. Women are either equal, autonomous beings with the right to control their own bodies or they are not – and as such should, at the least, be judged for their choices or, at the most, have their right to make them withdrawn. Choosing to have an abortion is either to fetishise “selfishness” and “individualism” or a complicated, personal decision.
Personal, meaning both that the decision is yours alone and that your decision is only for you. For anti-choicers, it’s a point that’s routinely missed.
That you reacted to an ultrasound with a smile and tear does not mean that others don’t react with fear and sickness. That you have the money and a partner to feel financially and emotionally secure does not mean that others don’t sit pregnant in poverty, alone. That the picture on the ultrasound screen is, to you, a loved baby (“stretched and sleeping”) does not mean that to others it isn’t an unwanted collection of cells.
It’s the same as the women who, having regretted an abortion, go on to campaign to take other women’s right to have one. One person’s experience does not define someone else’s. And it shouldn’t dictate it. To be ‘progressive’, you have to accept that. There is, I’m afraid, no choice on that one.