The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate

Mehdi Hasan has provoked a big online debate about abortion, after publishing a column in the New Statesman on whether abortion is a Left/Right issue in politics. Mehdi says that although the Left is usually identified with the pro-choice* argument and the Right with pro-life*, the arguments deployed are (in his view) the opposite of what the Left and Right usually deploy. The Left use the language of individualism and choice, while the Right use the language of vulnerability and equality.

This article sparked a furious online debate about the central issue – Kenan Malik has an excellent pro-choice rejoinder to Hasan’s piece.  There has also been a meta-debate about whether it was even possible to have a reasoned debate about the issue. I was taken with Hopi Sen’s analysis, comparing what a person thinks they said with what people on the opposing side actually hear (see these amusing stanzas for a shortened version).

I tend to think of the central question as a Devil’s Alternative type question. Whatever you choose, the outcome is bad. Trying to devise rules – legal or ethical – for a Devil’s Alternative problem seems futile. Is abortion right? is a trick question: The stuff of utilitarian philosophy lectures and episodes of 24, where you try to work out the course of action that causes least hurt… Knowing full well that any choice you make leads to permenant unpleasant consequences. Perhaps the only way out of the mire is to punt on the central ethical question, declaring it essentially incomplete in Gödel‘s sense: we are not equipped to process such a question properly. It is undecidable. A paradox that exposes the limits of our language and ethical structures.

All this is spectacularly unsatisfactory. It is not good form to simply punt the ethical question because it is difficult. This is wishy-washiness at its best. We criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury for such intellectual acrobatics, and we must hold ourselves to the same standards. Furthermore, such an equivocal approach angers everyone who takes an actual view on abortion – they see avoiding the question as irresponsible and callous.  My argument from ‘incompleteness’ is also biased, because it naturally leads one to err on the side of choice for individuals, i.e., the pro-choice position.

But abortion argument is also incomplete in another way.  In trying to parse the issue in terms of the fœtus and the woman, they accept the trickery of the Devil’s Alternative.  There is not nearly enough discussion of practical policies that could reduce the need for abortions, and having to make the horrible choice that ensues.  Commenting on Facebook, Sophie Mayer puts it very eloquently:

It is disingenous to claim that the feminist argument for abortion fetishises selfishness … Feminist arguments for abortion are that, in an ideal world, women would have all the information and security needed to make decisions concerning reproduction, including full & frank sex education, access to contraception, ability to negotiate sexual relations, and full child support after birth. This world does not exist, and the same forces that are against abortion are all too often against creating the above conditions as well.

Hasan emphasises the persistent myth of the “lifestyle” abortion, using de Jong’s quotation, rather than looking carefully at the circumstances that cause women to choose abortion. In doing so, he treats the women who choose abortion as less-than-capable decision-makers, as if their choice is either determined by some free-market forces OR ill-informed. This has consistently been a MALE position against abortion: the idea that women are not capable of rational decision-making, which includes factoring in the continuing dominant social mandate that puts the burden of childcare (and [therefore] of poverty) on women.

If Mehdi wants to bring an end to abortion, except in cases of medical necessity or for rape/incest survivors (or does he disapprove of that & join hands with Paul Ryan as well? It’s unclear), he should be campaigning vocally for full & frank sex education (including education on consent), universally available and unstigmatised contraception, full child support, equal wages and employment law that doesn’t penalise pregnancy and childcare. If he’s not campaigning for THOSE, he’s not a leftist.

* Yes, I am well aware that even ascribing labels to the opposing sides is contentious. (back)

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