Mehdi Hasan, abortion and the “no womb, no opinion” fallacy

Picture of abortion demo in Bedford Square, LondonMehdi Hasan, a former editor at the New Statesman who has since moved to the Huffington Post, had a largely very well-reasoned article published on the latter website about how being opposed to abortion does not make him any less of a “lefty” than anyone else, that prominent figures in progressive politics (not all of them religious) from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Christopher Hitchens were pro-life, and that socialism should be “about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless”, and there is nobody more voiceless than the unborn child. The reaction has been a flurry of outrage, some of it mistaking his argument for a purely religious one (which, he makes clear, it is not) and much of consisting of the simple assertion that, as a man, he has no right to an opinion on the subject anyway.

The feminist blogger Stavvers points out one particular mistake in Mehdi Hasan’s article: that the time limit in much of Europe is 12 weeks as proposed by Jeremy Hunt recently. In fact, she says, after that time the law is similar to ours here in the UK in which doctors have to approve based on some mental or physical health need for the woman to have the abortion. However, she also calls for the abortion time limit to be scrapped altogether, partly so that “sad stories like that of Sarah Catt would not — and could not — result in a prison sentence” and partly so that the current 24-week limit would suddenly appear more reasonable. Sarah Catt was last month jailed for using drugs obtained from the Internet to abort her pregnancy at almost full-term, an act described by the judge as “between manslaughter and murder”. I think this is an extraordinarily bad example to give in defence of abortions late in pregnancy: the baby was two days before its due date and would have been barely distinguishable from a newborn baby. If, as Mehdi Hasan says in his article, a baby at 24-week gestation can hardly be likened to a bundle of cells, a baby at 9 months certainly cannot. It is true that their legal personhood exists only when they are born, but the fact of human life and its moral worth (and the baby’s ability to feel pain, much disputed over at earlier stages in pregnancy) are already well-established, which is why abortion is illegal by that point.

There are laws about this issue, and a moral debate, precisely because it involves the loss of a human life. No matter of such significance can ever be deemed the ‘territory’ of just one section of the population, namely those who might experience or perceive the need to do it. We do not all share the reproductive characteristics of those who get pregnant and consider, or have, abortions, but we all share the humanity with those who are on the sharp end and whose humanity is deemed not to matter. Some of us also share disabilities with them, as children found in the womb to have disabilities can be aborted without restriction in this country even if the disability or defect is trivial (like a cleft palate) or at least, not extremely life-limiting (like Down syndrome), as this article (arguing against Sarah Catt’s imprisonment) points out.

The “no womb, no opinion” argument is an example of several logical fallacies, including the ad hominem argument — the attack on the person arguing, rather than an attempt to refute their argument, in this case by invalidating their right to even state an opinion. It is similar in some ways to the arguments used by those who defend female genital mutilation even in its most extreme form, or fox hunting: that because you are not one of us, you cannot possibly know as much as we do and thus your opinion does not count. It is a very common last resort of those who defend the indefensible. The argument is only valid if everyone they are opposing is not from among them, yet there are plenty of African opponents of FGM, plenty of rural dwellers who do not like huntsmen trampling all over their fields, blocking their roads and killing their pets, and plenty of women who oppose abortion, including some of the most militant.

The blogger Hopi Sen takes Mehdi Hasan to task for charging “pro-choice” activists with fetishising choice, yet this is something I have seen on occasions where the matter of restricting abortion to combat female foeticide is raised. I saw a feminist blog argue largely on choice grounds against restricting abortion once the sex of the baby has been disclosed, so that parents who want sons cannot terminate daughters (this is the law, although commonly flouted, in India). Some of the arguments were valid, among them that this argument was about Canada, from which anyone can simply pop over the border into the USA and have an abortion where Canadian law does not apply, but it came down to the greater importance of the woman’s choice over the fact that the choice might reflect a disdain for the status of girls and women. Female foeticide needs to be fought for other reasons besides this, among them that an imbalance in males’ favour is already known to lead to violence (such as kidnapping of girls for brides). It is a social evil which puts everyone, particularly every young person, at risk.

Hopi Sen also accuses Hasan thus:

Not only does Mehdi presume to know that an unborn baby has a consciousness, a ‘voice’ that can be defined (which avoids a whole set of questions about who exactly is making such a preference, and at what point they become capable of asserting these preferences, and how exactly we know when these views are formed), but he appoints himself as the person best placed to identify what that voice would say. In other words, Mehdi is saying to women who have had an abortion that he knows better than them how their aborted foetus feels about them. He is the one speaking up for the unborn, after all.

I read this, and I am angry. Angry on behalf of women who have made a choice to not have a baby, and so made a choice that, however made, or for what cause, should surely not subsequently involve well-intentioned journalists telling them that they did not listen to the (imaginary) voice of their foetus.

Picture of woman holding up abortion rights banner in LondonThe answer to this is that there are many people with a valid claim to judge what decisions a parent makes about their own children, indeed many that society gives this authority to, such as social workers and teachers. Parents make decisions about their children’s lives all the time, and they do not always put their children’s needs first when the do this — sometimes, quite the opposite. The fact that a baby (at or after birth, let alone before) might be incapable of conceptualising life and therefore forming an objection to having it taken away does not mean that, once a baby can be deemed a viable living being and not merely a bundle of cells, his or her life does not have moral worth. A person with a severe disability may be similarly incapable, yet most of us accept that their lives must be protected. In a debate about a matter of human life being lost, in which people are seriously arguing that only the woman’s choice matters and that this should be the case up until delivery, someone must speak up for the unborn. With the exception of cases where an abortion is sought because the mother knows that the child has a genetic disability which would cause them a great deal of suffering, abortion is generally sought for the mother’s reasons, not out of concern for the child’s welfare.

“No womb, no opinion” is in any case a pointless argument, because the law will be decided by Parliament on a free vote, if it is to be changed at all. Other than a change to a 20-week limit, banning or severely restricting abortion is currently not on the agenda; Jeremy Hunt advocated a 12-week limit as a personal opinion and nothing more. It is not government policy. This is not the United States and there is a general revulsion in this country towards the lurid anti-abortion politics found there, even among religious voters and even among those who are morally or religiously opposed to abortion, or at least its unrestricted availability. The problem is that one group in society is trying to shut down debate with a staged outpouring of anger, a flood of assertions of opinion with demands that they be accepted as facts, and demands that men simply shut up. Other men may shut up if they like, but I will not. It’s still a free country, and the women demanding free abortion on demand and alleging that it’s all about women’s rights to their own bodies are not the only people who are entitled to their opinion.

(I should add that suggestions that a subsequent child’s disability is a punishment for the mother’s earlier abortion are quite ridiculous, and unconscionable to present to a congregation of children, including some with disabilities. The pro-life lobby comes out with some ridiculous things. The idea that human life is sacred and that abortion shouldn’t be available without any restrictions is not one of them.)

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