Life as an Extreme Sport

Lies, Damned Lies, and Mehdi Hasan on Abortion

I got really annoyed this morning. I woke up, and basically the first thing I saw on Twitter was numerous retweets and comments about a HuffPo UK article on abortion and social progressives attempting to argue that one could be socially progressive and still advocate for an anti-choice position.

I disagree, rather vehemently. To the tune of almost 3000 words, give or take, as I basically deconstructed the author’s entire argument in an attempt to show not only why it was wrong, but obnoxiously so. With thanks to Nicholas G. Evans, Catherine Flick, and Laura Northrup, all of whom provided feedback and helped to focus my irritation into coherence.

Without furtherOkay, with slightly further ado: yes, this piece was picked up and published, in edited form, on Comment is Free in The Guardian.

Now, really, without further ado,…

Narrative matters. Anyone who has read more than one or two things that I’ve written knows how strongly I believe in that statement. Narrative gives us a way to frame a concept, to personalize a debate, to prevent academia from getting a bit too high in the clouds of theory. Narrative matters. However, narrative alone is not an argument for or against a position. Narrative can be used to frame the problem, but it itself cannot be used to solve it.

This is probably the largest of the many errors Mehdi Hasan makes in his UK Huffington Post piece Being Pro-Life Doesn’t Make Me Any Less of a Lefty.Don’t worry, I’ll get to the other errors, too. To be fair, Hasan doesn’t lead with his narrative, but he does make it clear, once we reach that point in the article, that his narrative — his personal story — informs his entire worldview on the choice of abortion and why he is anti-choice. He says,

I would be opposed to abortion even if I were to lose my faith. I sat and watched in quiet awe as my two daughters stretched and slept in their mother’s womb during the 20-week ultrasound scans. I don’t need God or a holy book to tell me what is or isn’t a “person”.

Well, that’s all well and good for him — but of course, a counter-narrative can easily be presented:

I watched in quiet horror as the ultrasound flickered, showing the still-indistinct at 14-week mass focusing in and out on the screen. That mass of splitting and differentiating cells would tie me to my abuser forever. I would never, ever get away. This was it; this was the final leash. He had won. This was my life, forever. I had to get away. I had to abort.

A narrative point and counter-point?

Of course a father looking at the ultrasound image of his gestating, 20-week-old, daughters is going to feel love and awe and the majesty of life, and deeply feel that those are his babies and that they are people. Because — and this is what Hasan is fundamentally missing in his entire piece — those babies were wanted.

Assuming that everyone who ends up pregnant has the same reaction to the cells gestating, whether that person is male or femaleCatherine pointed out that only women end up pregnant, which – point. As I explained to her, though, it’s become common in the crunchy granola US crowd for people to consider themselves-as-couple pregnant, rather than just the woman, and I simply cannot think of a more elegant way to state the concept, especially given that language is especially distant and removed for the male half of conception., is making an awful lot of assumptions: of consent, of ability, of finances, of desire, of circumstance, of situation, and that’s just to name a few. As such, it forms the basis of a shaky argument that only becomes shakier when you examine the other points theoretically supporting it. So let’s go through those, as well.

Hasan begins his argument with the subhead “blob of protoplasm” and proceeds to make this argument:

“My body, my life, my choice.” Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed. 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?

Well, the abused woman, for one. But how about any woman who is still fighting for equality in a man’s world? It’s much easier, though, to fetishize the unborn and place yourself in the role of the noble champion of someone if that someone cannot actually tell you if your efforts are successful — or even appreciated.And quite a lot of anti-choice rhetoric ignores the voices that do say it would have been better if they had been aborted. One such account by Lynn Beisner was recently published by the Guardian.

From here, Hasan goes on to say he wishes to make three points to “his friends on the pro-choice left.” As such, I’ll ignore his poor philosophical reasoning and let someone else hit him over the head with Judith Jarvis Thomson; instead, I’ll restrict myself to those three points and why they are each wrong, and taken together, his entire argument – that one can be a lefty and externallyRather than personally, as the later Joe Biden example illustrates anti-choice – has absolutely no validity.

The first point Hasan wants to make is that the United Kingdom is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to abortion access. He asserts that Jeremy Hunt’s position, that 12 weeks gestation should be the cut-off for legal abortion, is normal across Western Europe, and that France, Germany, Italy and Belgium all adhere to this limit.

Well, I admit that as an American, I do not know the abortion rules for EU countries off the top of my head. But as a pedant, I do know that Google exists. And less than five minutes with Google told me this:

France: Abortion on demand is legal up to 12-weeks (14 weeks last menstrual period). After this, France reverts to something akin to what the UK has by default: two physicians must attest to the need for abortion due to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, the woman’s life is in danger, or the fetus has deformities that are incompatible with life. If you don’t read French, you’ll have to translate this one. I do, and did anyhow, because reading French conversationally and reading French legal texts? Two entirely different things.
Germany: Much like France, in Germany, abortion is legal and available largely on demand for the first trimester. After this point, the very broadly defined “medical necessity” may be invoked.
Belgium: As far as I can piece together from Anglophile websites and translated pages, Belgium allows abortion without stringent prohibitions through the 12th week, and — say it with me — in case of medical emergency or duress after that point.
Italy: While you might assume Italy would have the most restrictive laws, they allow abortion for the first 90 days of pregnancy, which is a bit closer to abortion through the 13th week. However, like everyone else, it merely takes a doctor’s confirmation of severe injury to a woman’s physical or mental health, or serious birth defects incompatible with life, in order to access an abortion after this cut-off point.

So, in other words, Hasan either does not understand the laws in the countries that he cites, or — and more likely — he is obfuscating in the hopes no one will notice.Cynical? Yeah. I’ve worked for abortion access and rights going on 20 years. I know the opposition and I know how they operate.

But putting aside his factual inaccuracy, let’s address what it would mean to restrict abortion to 12 weeks. Ninety-one percent of abortions procured in the UK in 2011 were at or before 12 weeks; 78 percent are at or before 10 weeks. For the other nine percent, the numbers do what you would expect, and continue to dramatically drop between the 14th and 16th week, and then again between the 16th and 19th week. Approximately one percent of abortions — around 2729 — are done at or after the 20th week. Numbers which happen to correspond pretty closely to how many abortions are granted due to there being abnormalities with the fetus, generally things like anencephaly, which are largely considered incompatible with life.

As to why there is a delay in seeking abortion from that remaining nine percent, the statistics do not give a reason. However, we can easily extrapolate that for about six percent of that group, the fetal abnormalities that led them to choose abortion were not detectable until closer to the 16th week of gestation (if not later), as that’s approximately when testing results are accurate and available. The remainder, we can likely draw upon a range of conclusions — access to services, delay due to outside forces, inability to decide, and so forth — but the question ultimately remains as to whether or not any of that is relevant, when the option is either forced pregnancy and illegal abortion or legal and safe abortion. Ultimately, whether you are a “lefty” in the United States or United Kingdom, or otherwise a social progressive, you must agree to some basic concepts, including the preservation of the

rights to life, liberty, and the responsible exercise of moral agency. These rights are undermined when women are denied the freedom to decide whether and when to have children, and how many of them to have. Reproductive freedom is an essential part of women’s right to liberty. It is vital to both liberty and responsible moral agency that we be free to protect our health, to plan and shape our lives. …So vital is this social good that wherever safe, legal, and affordable abortion is unavailable, many women risk death, permanent physical injury, social disgrace, and legal prosecution, in order to end unwanted pregnancies.Warren M. Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1997; pp 210.

I realize that Hasan attempts to block this argument by arguing that the “unborn child” is weaker and more vulnerable, and thus more deserving of protection, but this assumes that a fetus has full moral statusNote: This originally said “moral agency,” but David Hunter kindly pointed out that my other two ethicist editors missed the fact that while I was echoing the language use in Warren’s quote, this was incorrect and I should have used status. Thanks, David, and fixed. equal to that of the woman who is pregnant. At this point, I merely refer you to Mary Anne Warren’s chapter on Abortion and Human Rights in Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things, wherein she clearly explains the biological and moral justifications to not grant sentience, and therefore equal moral statusThe other swap from moral agency to status, per the earlier note re: David Hunter’s feedback., to first and early second trimester fetuses.

From this inaccurate argument, Hasan moves on to another one: the history of women’s rights activists and an apparent argument that early feminists were anti-choice and… well, I’m not entirely sure what his argument is, other than to note this historical fact and then deviate into modern anti-choice feminism:

Then there is the history you gloss over: some of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, such Mary Wollstonecraft, were anti-abortion, as were pioneers of US feminism such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the latter referred to abortion as “infanticide”. In recent years, some feminists have recognised the sheer injustice of asking a woman to abort her child in order to participate fully in society; in the words of the New Zealand feminist author Daphne de Jong: “If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.”

There are two separate issues here, so let’s take them in order. First, the history. Yes, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were anti-abortion. Historical women’s rights activists were not always awesome. For example, Anthony and Stanton were also quite racist by contemporary standards. Anthony was so upset with the idea of freedmen getting the vote before women that she frequently argued that educated white women would make better voters than ignorant black and immigrant men. She also wasn’t above using racist fears to further her goals; after the 15th Amendment gave freedmen the right to vote, she argued that voting freedmen threatened the safety of white women (playing up fears of “racial contamination”).

Are we then to assume that Hasan thinks contemporary feminists should back the racist positions held by Anthony? One presumes not, as this would undoubtedly negatively effect him. Why, then, should we selectively be required to follow other outdated ideas?

It’s not glossing over history to be grateful for advocates who set the stage for our rights while simultaneously discarding the culturally constructed beliefs that we now view as morally injust or just simply wrong.

The second issue is contemporary anti-choice feminists like de Jong. Yes, many contemporary women are anti-choice, in part because they focus on the social avenues that influence women to abort: it is a problem that a woman feels the need to abort a wanted pregnancy to preserve lifestyle, career, economic or social status. This is “pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.”Note: there are lots of folks quoting de Jong on this, but actually finding the original source of the quote is proving frustrating, even in the lovely age of Google. If anyone has it, do let me know and I’ll edit things accordingly.

The solution to this, however, is not banning abortion and instituting forced pregnancy. The solution is to change the circumstances — the social determinants — that leave a woman deciding a wanted pregnancy should be terminated.

But note the emphasis there: wanted. While changing the social status quo may change the mind of some unintentionally pregnant women, removing choice also functions to reinforce male convenience and control. As Warren notes, abortion is controversial now because it is a “symbol of contemporary cultural and political struggles over sexual morality and the social roles of women.”Warren M. Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1997; pp 208 — 209. Those who are anti-choice typically tend to follow more conservative beliefs about the physiological differences between men and women, tend to oppose sex education in schools, and resist easy access to contraceptives.Lusker K. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1984; pp 159 — 185. And perhaps most to the point, this is done because abortion is seen as a threat to the role of women in the family “because it frees them to engage in heterosexual intercourse without the risk of unwanted motherhood.”Warren M. Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1997; pp 208 — 209. Or, as Jezebel frequently notes, this viewpoint considers unintended/unwanted pregnancy a punishment for women having sex (often “unsanctioned” sex; that is, sex for fun, outside of marriage, and without the intent to procreate).

We can only extrapolate, from historical documents, what founding suffragettes may or may not have believed about contemporary access to abortion. We do know that abortion prior to Roe v Wade was an often nasty and horrible process that threatened, and took, the lives of women; it is difficult to believe that the explicit danger to a woman from an abortion in the 1800s didn’t influence the anti-abortion position of Anthony, Stanton, and others. We don’t need to go back to Stanton’s time to know how dangerous abortion was, either — we don’t even have to go back to the 1960s. All we have to do is look at countries today where abortion is not legal.The estimated annual number of deaths from unsafe abortion declined from 56,000 in 2003 to 47,000 in 2008. Complications from unsafe abortion accounted for an estimated 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide in both years. The Guttmacher Institute. Facts on Induced Abortions Worldside, January 2012.

Hasan would like his rights to his belief respected and perhaps understood, rather than being demonized as a misogynist or dismissed as a man who by virtue of not having to carry a pregnancy to term or be the presumed caretaker of the born child, has no right to an opinion. What Hasan is missing is that no one is saying he has to be pro-choice. He can be anti-choice. But that is much different than attempting to make a choice for others.

Joe Biden, of all people, eloquently stated this Thursday night during the American vice-presidential debate, when he said,

I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. With regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion… Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews… I do not believe that we have a right to tell… women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.

Hasan argues, at the end of his article, that the biggest problem with the abortion debate is that it is asymmetrical; “the two sides are talking at cross-purposes.” But the biggest problem with the abortion debate is not that it is asymmetric — it is that one group, the anti-choice group, is attempting to force their views on everyone else. As a pro-choice woman, I am not interested in whether or not another woman is carrying a pregnancy to term or aborting, save in the case where the woman asks for my opinion or involvement. My pro-choice position is not pushing her to abort — not even if, in my opinion, it would be the best thing for her life. As I do not believe in forced pregnancy, I do not believe in forced abortion.

I believe in choice.

And I am comfortable asserting that anyone who places the rights of a woman behind the rights of a non-sentientFrankly, if you haven’t read Warren, you just should. It is a simply outstanding book, and her chapter on applying her theory — which I always appreciate in any philosopher — is perhaps the best refutation of the notion of the rights of a fetus over the rights of a woman you’ll ever read. And it’s persuasive. potentialYes, I knew it would be difficult to get through any discussion of Hasan’s argument without invoking Thomson. Frankly, I think an entire rebuttal could be written just discussing her various examples of why various thought experiments clearly show that abortion is a perfectly moral and acceptable choice. For those of you who made it this far who are not familiar with the argument about an acorn and an oak and potentiality, here. Enjoy. of a human that we call a fetus, who would limit or deny abortions, who would force pregnancy, is, indeed, “less of a lefty.”

Above all, don’t lie to yourself.
The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.

”• Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


  1. Thanks for the comment, kinelfire – I was actually thinking of Thomas Beattie when I was discussing that particular point/phrasing with Catherine, but decided that the post was at risk of both losing coherence and becoming a novella as is. It’s definitely a very good point!

  2. This is just for the record and forgive me if it sounds pedantic but ‘still-indistinct at 14 weeks mass’ is extremely inaccurate. I have had 12 week ultrasound scans in both my pregnancies as well as seeing countless scan pictures belonging to friends and a fetus at that gestational age is anything but ‘indistinct’. It is in fact fully formed at 13 weeks and LOOKS like a baby. I but I think there are too many instances in which abortion is taken too lightly and it is for those instances that it is important we are clear about the fetus’ development.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Surraya. I’ve seen quite a few ultrasounds myself, and the distinction level definitely clarifies between 12 and 16 weeks. How distinct though is imprecise, in large part because pinpointing conception is rarely as precise as we make it out to be with gestational charts. (There are other things that can make for indistinct ultrasounds, as well.)

    I chose 14 weeks because it’s the in-between point of the ranges, for aliteration, and because it actually is a blending together of several individual stories (done so to respect privacy).

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  4. What a brilliant article. You articulated, in a much cleverer way than I could do, most of my objections to the Huff Post piece. Ta.

Comments are closed.