On Tuesday morning Mehdi Hasan was on a prime slot on the Radio 4 Today programme airing his, now well known, anti-abortion views.
It would be easy to dismiss his recent interventions on abortion as controversy for controversy's sake. But real women's lives are at stake in all this. And, as Mehdi seems to determined not to let the issue rest, is important to nail some of the misapprehensions behind his arguments and those of his new-found friends on the right.
He is, of course, entitled to be personally anti-abortion. There are numbers of women, who whilst they strongly support a right to choose, would not necessarily themselves exercise the choice to have an abortion. At the very least, many women who support a right to choose would find it a personally agonising decision. Nor do I argue that men don't have a right to a view on abortion. Furthermore they are welcome to try and persuade the women in their life on the subject. But Mehdi has gone one step further. As a journalist he has stepped into the public space to support the forces against a woman's right to choose.
Since publishing his column Mehdi has posed as a hapless victim. But, by lining up with anti-abortion forces, he is actually shoulder to shoulder with some of the most powerful forces in Western society. In Britain alone, he is siding with at least two major newspaper groups who campaign ceaselessly to undermine a woman's right to choose. The international anti-abortion group 40 Days for Life is currently praying outside no fewer than nine abortion clinics in Britain seeking to intimidate women from going in and giving out false information. The religious right in the Conservative Party is lavishly funded and on the offensive. And then there is the little matter of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church.
Mehdi argues that, although he supports the arguments of all these people, he is not actually calling for further legal restrictions. This is disingenuous. If your arguments reinforce one side in an important political fight, you cannot dissociate yourself from the practical consequences.
Mehdi insists on describing himself as pro-life. He apologises for using the phrase. But somehow he keeps on using it. So, by inference, the rest of us are death dealers. Or, as described in the quote from Christopher Hitchens he began his original column with, those in favour of a woman's right to choose are happy to: "Still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain, break some bones and rupture some organs."
Mehdi has now apologised for quoting from Hitchens. But he has not apologised for framing the debate as a conflict between the rights of the unborn child and women's rights. Yet this is the classic right wing position and wholly dishonest. Mehdi doesn't seem to notice that the same people who agonise over the unborn child, often abruptly lose all interest in the child when it is actually born. The truth is that the real issue is women's rights over their own bodies. In the world of Mehdi's new right wing friends, men have absolute rights over their own bodies. But women? Not so much.
In defending his anti-abortion position Mehdi has frequently resorted to patronising putdowns. Often these have been directed at women, who had been offended by his remarks. He accused me of jumping on the right-to-choose bandwagon. Actually, I was marching to defend women's reproductive rights when Mehdi was in nappies. Which is presumably why he doesn't remember. But there is reason why I, and so many other women, feel strongly about a woman's right to choose. It is because any feminist, worth the name, knows that control over own bodies is ground zero for every educational, social and economic advance that women have made in the last century. Millions of women in poor countries around the world rely on the case being made that women are more than their reproductive function. Women's equality is based on the belief that we are more than walking/talking receptacles for the foetus.
But it is time to move our gaze from Mehdi Hasan and to the real threats to women's reproductive rights out there. There is no question, for instance, that by calling for 12 week time limits for abortions Jeremy Hunt has actually softened political opinion up for cuts in abortion time limits that are a little less drastic but equally have no basis in medical opinion. Marie Stopes is opening a new clinic in Belfast, which is already being threatened by anti-abortionists. And the "40 Days for Choice" campaign is trying to raise awareness of increasing intimidation by anti-abortionists.
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