Patriarchy and the abortion debate: a response to Mehdi Hasan

By Jamie

15 October 2012

A guest post by Reni Eddo-Lodge*

My mum gave birth to me when she was new to this country, 22 years old and in an abusive relationship. She packed a bag and left my dad when I was 6 weeks old to escape domestic violence. For years it was just me and her in our South London council flat. Sometimes we couldn’t afford to put the heating on. Sometimes she went hungry for my sake; sometimes she’d risk the rent to buy me a birthday present.

We lived in poverty.  She couldn’t afford to raise me, a single coping mum in the midst of John Major’s rhetoric demonising her and every other single mother in the country.  I recognise that life would have been inordinately easier for her if she hadn’t had me then. Childbirth was better suited to a time when she was financially on her feet, independent, skin not stinging from bruises. It’s because I love her that I recognise this. She sacrificed the progression of her life for me. For this I am grateful, but I also recognise the chances I have that she was repeatedly denied, because she raised me in a world with the odds stacked against her.

If she had considered abortion, I wouldn’t call her selfish or individualistic. I’d call it an act of self-preservation. It’s this expectation of self-sacrifice applied to all women that infuriates me when men see fit to lecture women on abortion.

And it’s this deeply disturbing stance Mehdi Hasan takes when he writes in the New Statesman  that it is in fact possible to be left wing and anti-choice. The left takes on rhetoric of individualism, he insists, when articulating the importance of a woman’s right to choose.  These women making these decisions are just selfish. It’s as though the left and right have swapped ideologies. Don’t these women understand what their bodies are primarily for? Who will speak for the unborn child?

He wants rational debate on this, he insists, as he attacks the very core of your being. Your hysterics only prove that you don’t know how to debate these things properly. Don’t go calling him factually accurate words like ‘misogynist'—because that’s a slur, and that hurts his feelings. 

Aspects of his argument could have been typed by the fingers of the tea party.  He quotes feminist author Daphne de Jong, who makes a pertinent point about a ‘system devised and run by men for male convenience’. But he completely misses the point here—women don’t selfishly resort to abortion to participate in society because we want to be like men. Society is stacked against us. Everyday life fetishizes and worships the state of being a man, and denigrates women’s work as unimportant and inconsequential.  We’re told we can have it all up until the point where we have to submit to his needs and look after his kids. And Hasan perpetuates this when his biological determinism effectively tells us to know our place.

The so called abortion debate is irreconcilable, because both sides are starting from two different planes of thought. Some people believe that the purpose of women on this earth is to be self-sacrificial, whilst others believe that women shouldn’t be demonised if they opt for a different way to live their lives.   

Here’s why Hasan’s piece is anti-woman. He attempts to reframe the debate on his terms, snatching it out of the hands of people who can get pregnant, insisting on the premise of ‘ethics’ rather than women’s rights, and consequentially betraying his male privilege and over inflated sense of entitlement. 

When he ponders which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb, he takes women out of the equation, completely; women’s thoughts, our hopes, our dreams, our aims and our goals—which may or may not include children.

There’ll be a day when motherhood is a comfortable, informed choice for all women, a choice women can make without giving up work or buying childcare. There’ll be a day when society comes to the realisation that 50% of the population can bear children and structures itself favourably around people with dependents. That day will come because feminists will continue to fight for it. Maybe then the debate can shift.  Until then, the terrain for women remains hostile.

We’re expected to give and give and give by default, and be deferential to those who claim ownership over our bodies, be it the men we implicitly serve, or the children we’re raised to give our lives to. If we deviate from this, we’re demonised—sluts for using contraception and entertaining the concept of heterosexual sex without procreation, selfish for deciding to delay childbirth or not having children at all. This misogynist thought is ingrained in the very fundamentals of our culture. It couldn’t be clearer when it tells us what our bodies are for. 

It’s important to unpick the concept of autonomy, a word loaded with gendered bias. It’s impossible to consider yourself autonomous when you’re expected to take full ownership of dependents.  When Hasan brands women as selfish and individualistic, his stance lacks any context-specific understanding of women’s lives. As long as men like him concentrate on the issue of potential pregnancy rather than the life of the person potentially carrying to term, women will continue to be demoted to the role of fleshy incubator.

But then again, it’s not surprising that his stance disregards women altogether. There’s a word for that: sexism.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is an MA student and freelance writer. She has contributed to the Guardian, The F Word and a host of other hubs for left wing writing. She blogs here and tweets here.

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8 Comments on "Patriarchy and the abortion debate: a response to Mehdi Hasan"

By Lisa Ansell, on 15 October 2012 - 11:15 |

Hassan was happy to whitewash the targetting of mothers from narrative he sold about austerity, because it was Lab position too. Go look for the women who took brunt of cuts in the New Statesman,

By Ben C, on 15 October 2012 - 13:48 |

I’m pro-choice, unlike Hasan, but I think he makes a good point. Given that all objection to abortion hinges on whether it involves killing an actual human as yet unborn, or just ending a mere potential life, responding with a dogmatic “My body, my life, my choice” can come across as selfish and excessively individualistic. The only reason anyone (anyone with any credibility whatsoever, at any rate) objects to women having a right to choose, or seeks to limit it, is that they believe it involves killing an infant human. The proper redress would focus on how that is not in fact the case, that it takes time for a foetus to develop into anything that can reasonably be deemed a person deserving the protection of the law. Emphasising the personal choice aspect without even acknowledging the problematic side of the whole issue isn’t going to win anyone over to the pro-choice point of view, and if anything is only liable to antagonise.

By k m, on 15 October 2012 - 15:36 |

“There’ll be a day when motherhood is a comfortable, informed choice for all women, a choice women can make without giving up work or buying childcare. There’ll be a day when society comes to the realisation that 50% of the population can bear children and structures itself favourably around people with dependents… Maybe then the debate can shift.” Except it isn’t a choice all women would make even if this does eventually happen - I know I don’t want children. Don’t want. Not ‘don’t want yet’, or ‘prioritise my career’ - don’t want, ever. And I’m not alone. For those of us that absolutely do not want to be parents, accessible abortion will always be a necessity, no matter how much society changes.

Other than that, thıs pıece  ıs spot on. But that paragraph really rubbed me the wrong way.

By James Arnold, on 15 October 2012 - 16:37 |

Ben C,

“The only reason anyone (anyone with any credibility whatsoever, at any rate) objects to women having a right to choose, or seeks to limit it, is that they believe it involves killing an infant human.”

But do people who believe that abortion involves killing an infant human deserve to be taken seriously? I mean, I think they tend either to be woefully misinformed about the facts of ontogenetic development, or else they have religious motivations, which rest on nonsensical and unjustified beliefs about souls and God and whatnot. I think the proper response to the former group is to inform them of the facts and to castigate them for advocating a position that harms women out of sheer ignorance. And the proper response to the latter is to castigate them for advocating—indeed, usually seeking to impose—policies that harm women based on an unjustified but unfalsifiable conception of personhood and life.

“Given that all objection to abortion hinges on whether it involves killing an actual human as yet unborn, or just ending a mere potential life, responding with a dogmatic “My body, my life, my choice” can come across as selfish and excessively individualistic.”

As Reni Eddo-Lodge effectively points out, though, by focussing entirely on whether or not you are killing an unborn human, you exclude any consideration of the effect on women’s lives and wellbeing. This isn’t to say that if abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide, then a consideration of women’s lives and their rights can necessarily trump the foetus’. It is to say that women’s lives and rights should be factored into the equation as well. Denying this, or rejecting it as mere selfishness, is, as Eddo-Lodge says, blatant misogyny.

James

By Hecuba, on 15 October 2012 - 17:42 |

Both left wing and right wing males who oppose abortion sing from the same hymn sheet.  Namely these males claim women’s bodies and minds belong to men because male control over women’s bodies and women’s sexuality is central to our male supremacist system.

Left wing males and right wing males always discard their differences when the issue concerns maintenance of male domination and male oppression of females.  

If males didn ‘t demand their pseudo male sex right to females and their demand for penetrative sex because that is the only supposedly real sexual act for men, then there would not be so many women seeking terminations of unwanted pregnancies.

But women supposedly have nol rights except the right to ‘choose’ when the issue is one which serves men and their pseudo male right to dominate and control women.  ‘Choice’ is a useless term because women’s real lived lives are not those of ‘freely choosing’ rather women’s lives to be subjected to male control and male domination,

Men are the selfish self-centered ones who continue to view and enact belief women exist only to serve men’s needs/men’s sexual demands 24/7.   

By Jennie Kermode, on 15 October 2012 - 18:59 |

Is the debate irreconcilable? If so, only because it’s the wrong debate.

Most people don’t like abortion. It is, at best, a necessary evil, like any unpleasant medical procedure. We could be working together to reduce the necessity for it. Sex education; empowering women to make choices in relationships; teaching men not to rape and bully; providing real support to single mothers and struggling families; ceasing to stigmatise young, single, disabled or ageing mothers; improving the lives of disabled adults so mothers can feel confident about the future of disabled foetuses they carry to term - all these things can reduce abortion. They are, in fact, far more effective than reducing safe and legal access to abortion procedures. BUt they cost more money, and that’s the real, ugly truth behind this ‘debate’.

Simply put, it’s cheaper and easier to stigmatise women, even to the point of endangering them, than it is to help them avoid unwanted pregnancies or raise unplanned children. There are well-intentioned people playing along with this because they haven’t thought it through. It’s time for them to wake up and understand that the problem is not where they thought it was.

By Ben C, on 15 October 2012 - 19:32 |

James, I think we’re broadly in agreement.

I do think people who believe that abortion involves killing an infant human (at any given stage of gestation under discussion) deserve to be taken seriously, provided they have a rational (i.e. non-religious) basis for that belief, even if it is just a lack of knowledge of the available facts. It’s too important a matter, ethically, to just pooh-pooh people’s view. As you say, they should be brought up to speed on the science, and if they don’t accept the weight of evidence and medical/scientific consensus, then that is the point at which to stop listening to them.

On your second point, I’m not suggesting focussing entirely on the personhood issue, just not leaving it out entirely, because ultimately it is the basis for objection to abortion and therefore to not engage with it is a bad idea. The subject as a whole is a balance, and should be discussed as such. I certainly don’t think women having abortions are being selfish (not by *any* stretch), I don’t even know if Mehdi Hasan thinks that. But to support abortion rights purely in terms of the woman’s right to do as she pleases with her body makes the proponent of that argument seem selfish, because there is an appearance of refusal to acknowledge that there is a another developing human being involved.

By Dan, on 16 October 2012 - 22:10 |

Patriarchy is nothing. It’s a concept bourgeois feminists made up because they didn’t want to fight the capitalism they benefit from.

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