Abortion debate alert

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