Warsaw: Thursday 25th October 2012
Firstly a couple of disclaimers.
Family members need not be alarmed. There is no pressing need for this line of enquiry beyond intellectual curiosity.
I quote selectively from an article published in the New Statesman magazine dated, 11th October and provide the link in question here and further below in the relevant area. However, there are no quotation marks for merely being inspired to enquire as to my own views as a result of an article and I am indebted to Mehdi Hassan for his article in this publication. I trust that at no place do I misrepresent his own article or thrust and hope that this personal enquiry does not detract from his own pithy style or acutely observed content.
Not for the first time in the last 18 months or so, I find myself re-examining an aspect of life upon which I had assumed my opinions would be settled and life long. For some political arguments, the future of Northern Ireland, the reintroduction of the death penalty, the status of monarchy within our society or the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide (Euthanasia), to name a few, are so personally compelling, and so intractable, that they exact moral, as opposed to merely political, viewpoints.
abortion is one such debate. Being raised a British person, and being similarly exposed to European culture, there appeared no reason why this argument should cause me doubt. I formed a view on it at a young age, perhaps 15 or so, and have rarely revisited this view since. it was not perfect, and I knew it even as I formed it. But it was morally satisfactory for my needs and I have held to it ever since.
This doubt, therefor; this nagging suspicion that I might have somehow realigned while sleeping, is discomfiting. Perhaps this is the first sign of some sort of mid-life crisis, perhaps, I am undergoing some sort of political change of life. But, for the first time since I was a teenager, I do not have a firmly settled opinion on the pro-life versus pro-choice debate. I am unsure morally where I stand and what the implications are, if any on my politics.
More personally concerning (if somewhat superfluous to the actual arguments themselves), is the nagging knowledge that there is no real reason; no shocking revelation that has happened to prompt this doubt. I just suddenly realised that I wasn’t sure any more. There have been no recent brushes with pregnancy or contraceptive failures, no chance encounters with teenage mothers with heart-rending tales to tell. I have not even in this respect been particularly influenced by the highly politicised and partisan arguments characterised by each competing side of the US Presidential Election.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that this election has had the opposite effect. There is nothing less likely to stimulate general doubt and renewed interest in one’s own ideological stand point than to hear two highly rehearsed and embedded old arguments played out in parallel to their respective natural constituencies. It’s not so much that I doubt the veracity of either side in this respect. It is more that neither side is speaking to the undecided or the uninformed. Pro-life or pro-choice? It is less a debate about increments than a war over absolutes. You are with us or against us. It is good versus evil, right versus wrong, Jesus against the Devil. It is, in short, a debate whose intellectual honesty and heft correctly belongs in the playground. I am wholly unmoved by it. It is name calling. Nothing more.
And yet here I am, encountering honest doubt over the position I have taken my entire adult life. It is a position I believed to be essentially, moral and principled. Moreover, I can still see morality and principal in holding it. I’m just not sure I do any more.
So what was my position until this week?
Well, put simply, I was pro-choice. I was aware of a certain fudge at the heart of my thinking; namely that in protesting a woman’s innate sovereignty over her own body, including the uterus, I was to an extent, abdicating responsibility for my own opinions and thoughts. On a fundamental level, I could recognise this as a form of intellectual and possibly moral cowardice, but on the other hand, placed next to the idea that I as a disinterested male should have any say on how a woman rears here children, including those yet to depart the womb, the charges of intellectual cowardice pale somewhat.
What kind of person, would deny a woman the right to decide what is best for her and here foetus for the sake of an abstract idea?
Well, okay, true believers would. The religious believe that they have an answer to the problems with which humanity is confronted. To them this sense is not an abstract intellectual discomfiture. It is a moral position upon which they are duty bound to pronounce. I got that. Understood it intellectually, but could fudge this issue too, through the fact that for the majority of this time, I had no religious convictions.
No God, no duty. Hand it over to women. I have no say, deserve no say, might like to be consulted should I ever be directly related to the foetus, but even then, would play the role assigned to me by genetics; that of the supportive partner, willing to take such responsibility as I was assigned but not overstep the mark. I could advise, state my own opinion, but it would stop there. Moreover, If I were not involved, I had no say at all.
So my position was clear. Sure it was based on two essential fudges and I was not without intellectual discomfiture about that, but it didn’t exactly keep me asleep at night.
And when I think about it, why should it have. It was a thought-out position and assigned a limited role that I should be expected to take in the event that I became embroiled in its implications. It also came with a ready-made code, which was both morally pure and based in firm self-interest.
In the thorny world of teenage and twenty-something sexual politics, my position could actually be made to seem quite heroic, cast in certain lights. I clearly respected women intellectually, and afforded them elemental trust that they were best placed to decide how to treat their bodies. At the same time, I had a duty both to myself and to my chosen partner to ensure that she never had to make that decision. And I took this duty seriously, ensuring that contraception was a responsibility taken by me as well as by her.
And then, should the unthinkable happen, then I had a clearly defined role to play. I was satisfied that my position, in the event that this ever happened would be clear. I was not financially able to provide much in the way of support, was reluctant to cast this responsibility onto the State or my own family. Therefore, should she wish to abort, I would be supportive. It would of course be a solemn and heart-breaking time, but (and I am not proud of this), internally I would have been performing cartwheels while simultaneously checking myself into the nearest monastery.
If, on the other hand, (through supportive conversation), it was established that my partner wished to keep the child, either as a single mother (I don’t think it ever entered my head that I would provide anything more substantial than financial support), or in order to put the child up for adoption, I would have been left with little choice but to support that decision and realign my finances and lifestyle accordingly.
I am confident that at no time in my twenties did I ever think through the likely consequences or challenges to that position any further. I was satisfied; I think that I had a strategy in the event that the unthinkable happened. They key thing was to make absolutely sure that it didn’t.
It was not quite as callous as it sounds, of course. I would not have run off without being at least a part-time Daddy, likely. But like many young people I also lacked a belief that I would be any good at it. I don’t think I ever did intillectualise this, but if I had, I am certain that I would have reached the rapid conclusion that I had no business playing houses and daddy’s and that the best course of action for all concerned would have been to get out of that relationship as swiftly as possible; giving mother and child the best chance to build a life freely.
Reading back through this position, which I have never committed to text before, I am struck by the cold and calculating way I envisioned this eventuality. It is clear that my position would have been woefully inadequate for the moral, and intellectual questions I would have faced, had I ever actually been required to face them. What if she, had asked the question, whether I would still be around, or would I merely be a paycheck? Did I love her? Would I not love the child? Would I have been cold enough to simply walk away from what would have been my son or daughter? Could I have possibly exercised enough emotional maturity to have been a supportive partner through the process of an abortion and beyond it, had that been her choice? Indeed, how would I have coped with the complex negotiations that would have been required once her (and my) parents became involved?
Well clearly the answer is that somehow, my life would have continued to meander along a certain course. My life would be different today, but it would still be. And yet by the same token, clearly, I was woefully ill-equipped, despite my self-satisfied illusions, to have been the supportive male figure I imagined I would be. And there is that nagging word; my. What if I had not been so lucky? My life might well have carried on in some altered form. What of the Foetus?
I don’t necessarily mean it critically when I suggest that twenty something Crabbitat, was not ready emotionally, fiscally, mentally or perhaps physically for children, and probably, neither were any of my partners at that age either. Yet hear is the thing. I have barely mentioned the foetus in all this. I would have been required to make complex and life changing emotional judgements and negotiations in a state of anxiety (and possibly despair), but I suspect that whatever the emotional maturity of my partner at the time, my own thinking would barely have registered that the crux of the matter, was in fact not represented either physically or intellectually in my thinking.
For all that I fancied that my position was rational, supportive, selfless and morally unimpeachable, the fact remains that I would have been talking about the future of a life without even registering that a life was what would have been at stake.
To put it differently, it would have been like asking someone to discuss the right course of action in putting down an animal without specifying whether that animal were an ant, a donkey, a frog, a panda or a human being. For all that I as a twenty something would have argued this point. For all that I would have maintained that mine was a moral position in support of a woman I felt strongly for and for all that I would have denied that the foetus was not important, I cannot, as I write today, see that my position was moral in the way that I imagined it was. On the contrary it was morally unsustainable, because it was morally infantile, undeveloped and un-thought through. And this being the case what right had I to influence the decision-making processes affecting a life, as yet insufficiently developed to have a voice of its own?
Thankfully, this hypothesis was never tested.
Yet, it is tested every day across the globe by men and women no more ready than I was to make decisions affecting the unborn than I was, in some cases very much less so.
So what would my position be were it to happen today? How would I be more nuanced, more supportive? In what way am I more informed? And what difference does this make?
Well for one thing, I am not sure that I am better equipped to have this discussion, and I still view my primary responsibility in this regard to be prevention. I suppose I know a little more than I did, am a little better able to imagine the difficult discussions that would need to take place with interested parties. And crucially, I can see that my primary initial role, in the event that my partner fell pregnant would be to support her emotionally as she came to terms with the reality of the situation.
It would be possibly easier now as well. She has had time in a way that previous partners had not, to form opinions on children, childbirth, child rearing and what her attitude to these things is. It is quite possible that she would have basically decided the course of action before the conception made such a course relevant.
And yet, we would still be cast in a sea of uncertainty and fear, surrounded by people who have been there, who know the score and are happy to advise on the basis of their own experience, which to give them the benefit of the doubt, is supposed to be unique to them. Whatever course we took in those first days, I suspect the weight of decision would lay heavy, aware as we would be of the consequences to our lives and that of the foetus. I feel no more ready for that than I would have at the age of eleven.
Which is, I suppose, where ethics come in.
For ethics are essentially guiding principles (based in reason) upon which our decisions are based. If our lives are steam engines, our decisions would be the rails upon which they run. Ethics are the sleepers, upon which the rails are laid. What do ethics have to say here?
Well first it is necessary to strip away the politics which clings to ethics like wet moss. Both the position of pro-lifers and that of pro-choicers, are based in on ethical positions. But they are so politicised that it is impossible sometimes to see the difference between what is a political position and what is an ethical one.
So let us break these positions down. Let us try to peel away the moss to get at the principal.
The first thing to realise is that to be pro-choice is not necessarily an absolute position. It is completely possible to be pro-choice but fundamentally unwilling to countenance the use of that choice to end the life of a foetus.
This is an extremely difficult ethical reality to marry with the political language surrounding this debate in the US, which is very often couched in absolute language.
Yet while being pro-choice clearly leaves open the possibility that a woman may choose to abort an unwanted child, it also leaves open a range of possibilities which form the fabric of complex emotional and health based options once a conception becomes apparent. On the whole, it is my experience that very few women take the responsibility inherent in a pro-choice position likely. I have never met a woman who has not recognised this responsibility, and will be surprised if I ever do. Most women have far more maturely developed ideas about the point at which a foetus can be aborted than I have ever held or than I have ever heard articulated by a man.
For some it is a matter of health, for others an ethical decision based upon a point when it is thought that a foetus has developed some sense of consciousness, (making theirs an essentially humanitarian judgement and therefore, clearly demonstrating an awareness that they are looking at a human life other than their own). For other women, who fervently defend their right as women to make the choice, the window when a termination can take place either never opens, or stops when the morning after pill stops working. Such women recognise the intellectual rights they possess to end the life of a foetus but would opt, in the event that they found themselves involuntarily pregnant to proceed with the birth, on moral grounds.
My key point here however is not the semantics of 20 weeks gestation or 12 weeks. It is that being pro-choice is, in itself little more than a belief in a woman’s sovereignty over her body, and a recognition of her role as the guardian of unborn life. On the basis that one cannot understand the competing feelings and considerations inherent in unwanted pregnancy before you are actually faced by them, a pro-choice stance allows for a variety of scenarios to unfold and inform the complex moral choices, required.
A pro-choice stand point is a deeply human one in consequence, recognising the fallibility and imperfections of human decision-making and allowing a window to make them as clearly and sensibly as possible.
If anything this is about effecting ownership of specific responsibilities upon those best suited to carry out the practical task of deciding what is the best course of action to take. This sits firmly within the Christian Democratic tradition of subsidiarity (making decisions at the lowest possible level) and the Liberal tradition of rights and responsibilities. As such, it is neither the inalienable ethical property of the right or left in political terms.
Being pro-choice is effectively apolitical.
And yet, while that should be the case, it is not. In America, being pro-choice is essentially a position claimed by the left. In Britain too, the left has long been settled in its essential support for a pro-choice position on abortion. this is not merely a party political divide. Political voices across what would be considered the entire spectrum of the left, endorse a broadly pro-choice position, from Socialists, Social Democrats and Greens to Trade’s Unions, and of course, not forgetting feminists.
That said, it is easy to be pro-choice in Britain, whatever your leaning, and indeed, in most of Europe. The settled will of society is such, that the State has come to understand that it is not their business to interfere with women’s bodies. Religion is entitled to its view, so are lobbyists and political parties, but the state’s role here is simple, to facilitate the protection of the woman’s rights over her own body. If she chooses to be influenced by her faith, that’s fine. If she chooses to be influenced by other factors, that is fine too. The State will support that decision, and, if necessary, step in to ensure that the child’s father, takes a similarly enlightened view by supporting the child financially. The State acts as a neutral arbiter protecting the sovereignty of a mother over the foetus.
This actually, becomes more ethically complicated after childbirth, when the state in many cases begins to intervene to protect what it perceives to be children’s rights. We see from this intervention, various acts such as those banning the smacking of infants, or ensuring that health visitors are assigned to ensure that the child is properly looked after.
But ethically, in the abortion debate, European States are broadly clear and in line, and they are democratic, broadly reflecting the view of the population which is overwhelmingly pro-choice.
There are exceptions to this, particularly in countries where the State remains strongly influenced by the Catholic Church. Italy, Spain and Poland in particular buck the European trend in attending to substantial pro-life lobbies, based on a conservative Catholic doctrinal understanding of the terms of the debate. But for the most part the position is clear. The State has no business intervening in the decision of a woman, unless called upon to provide medical or judicial support (as in the case where the conception is the result of a rape).
To people of the right, this should seem simple ground too. What business does the State have either with protecting the interests of particular religious groups or with interfering in so intimate and personal a matter. Are not the right supposed to be in favour of a smaller state? are they not enamoured of the idea that individuals act in responsible ways, taking the decisions which affect their families at a local level?
Well again this is less complicated in Europe than in America. But it is more complicated than among those on the left.
The right in Europe, broadly recognise, as do the left, that properly, the responsibility for these things lies with the woman. And yet, it is not as simple as that. Drawn from the tradition of hierarchy and paternalism, from which ‘One Nation’ Conservatism and ‘Christian Democracy’ derive, there are some on the right who, while recognising the principal of the State being subservient to the individual will, never-the-less, feel uneasy at the standoffishness of this approach. Is there not a responsibility on us all to offer a guiding hand to protect society from the twin evils of permissiveness and poverty. To a Conservative, the family unit, as opposed to the Liberal idea of atomised individuals, is the best route to eradicating both moral and financial poverty, and as such, any man, myself included, who abdicates his responsibilities in this regard, is essentially contributing to the poverty which blights society. Thus, by a quirk of logic, we have an argument for State legislation against pro-choice, without there really needing to be a recognition given to the sovereignty of women in this regard.
Reduced down, the right’s position might be summarised thus. The sovereignty of woman as an individual entrusted with the guardianship of an unborn child, is subservient to the overall sovereignty of the family unit. Any woman exercising her right to choose outside this unit, is risking the accumulated stability and reservoirs of happiness and stability accrued by society at large.
Yet, once we strip away political language away and examine the core ethics underpinning views of the pro-choice position, we are still left with the fundamental problem that these ethical guidelines are essentially inadequate to the task, based as they are, both on the right and left, on ideas about poverty and class mobility, rather than the specific needs of children or mothers.
Thankfully, both in Europe and in the US, most people of the right are essentially Liberal Conservatives in the sense of being in favour of individual rights and responsibilities and a smaller State. While, I might view this position to be a corrupt simplification of a traditional liberal position, the reality is that it does make the terms of the debate easier on women. Put simply, while the Republican Party might advocate changing the constitution to ban abortion, my suspicion is that Mitt Romney will have better things to do with his presidency, should he be elected, than enacting federal legislation preventing women from exercising freedom over their own bodies.
In contrast to the pro-choice position, Pro-lifers are not usually misrepresented by stating that theirs is a singular or absolute position. If your stance is that the unborn foetus (or child) has a right to life, that trumps the right of his or her guardian to end it, then that right is necessarily absolute.
That means no morning after pill, it means no exceptions in the case of rape or the a Doctor’s advice proving a medical, genetic or physical abnormality. It might, in its most absolute form mean no contraception, although, if nothing else, the declining birth rate among middle class white American families would tend to indicate that the pro-life constituency is a little more pragmatic on this particular point.
It means that once you embark on the act of copulation you are essentially taking responsibility for the potential effects, regardless of what they might be. As a pro-life couple, you are obliged, to acknowledge that the sexual act may result in conception and if it does, you are responsible for its care and rearing or for placing this life into the hands of someone willing to do so.
It is a simple, morally upstanding position which, once again, sits squarely within both Liberal traditions of individual accountability and conservative notions of family. It is, just like its opposing position, entirely apolitical.
Or is it. For few on the left believe this on either side of the Atlantic. Finding a Pro-Life Democrat is doubtless possible, but will only serve to demonstrate, by its sheer unusualness, the massive exception this is to the rule.
Moreover, the ill-informed comments of Republican politicians such as the recent comments about ”legitimate rape” from the of Todd Aiken (Republican candidate to represent the State of Missouri in the Senate), are only going to alienate pro-life Democrats and moderate Republicans further.
Of course, male ignorance about the female body and willingness to project this ignorance before a disbelieving public is not confined to America, the congenitally stupid or to the political right. In Britain, one of the most erudite, and charismatic orators the political left has produced in a generation, George Galloway recently found himself equally pilloried, for pronouncing on the alleged rape allegations hanging over Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. Galloway’s comments, which referred to rape as “bad sexual etiquette,” were not directly related to abortion, but demonstrate that whatever your credentials or geography, it is possible to get the terms of debate altogether wrong, when discussing woman’s bodies. Other notable politicians who have fallen victim to this rule of thumb include Tory Grandee, Kenneth Clark, a politician who has otherwise distinguished himself as being an essentially liberal and moderate politician, often respected on both right and left. His great sin was to suppose on air that there might be different levels of severity in rape cases, and that the judicial system should not therefore be forced into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ sentencing system.
Again the Clark comments are only relevant to the abortion debate because they demonstrate the difficulties with which any man seeking to proffer and opinion forming statement will have if and when he gets it wrong. Such is the vehemence and unity of those whose voice has become the hegemony, that and dissenting voice, especially one concerning something as invasive to women’s bodies as pregnancy, will need to be both brave, strong, morally credible and, quite probably, female.
Yet there are voices that are compelling in other ways. At the start of this post, I suggested that i was influenced to enquire about my own feelings by another man (this time of the political left in Britain), the columnist and editor, Mehdi Hassan, who wrote a column in the New Statesman magazine, dated, 11 October, entitled, “Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty”( http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/lifestyle/2012/10/being-pro-life-doesnt-make-me-any-less-lefty) in which he articulates a series of justifications and disclaimers for his pro-life position.
Now, Hassan, does not really belong in the same paragraph as Galloway or Todd Aitken. He is among the most acerbic and thought-provoking writers in the British political landscape today, and is unafraid to blow holes in the lazy assumptions of either side where he sees a need to do so. Characteristically, Hassan’s article, was serious and reasoned, as well as demonstrating a clear and informed understanding of the arguments around which he was making his pitch.
Notably, it should be pointed out that Hassan was writing in a magazine aimed at the opinion formers and political obsessives of the British political left and his arguments should be seen in this context.
While his essential points are better made by himself, and are highly recommended via the above link, there was, I felt a subtext to this. Hassan was not merely outlining his own position vis-vis abortion. He does not quite go as far as saying that this is a debate which is already happening on the right, but in lambasting some of the lazy and flabby assumptions made by the left, such as the idea that people who are in favour of reducing the current limit (in Britain from 24 weeks gestation), in which you can have an abortion, are somehow sexist, or anti-woman, and reminding readers of Mary Wollstonecraft’s own anti-abortion stance, Hassan reminds us that it is simply not enough for people on the left to suppose that this argument is effectively won.
He denies in the article that he is motivated by a desire to encourage a debate on the left, but the fact that he chose to write the article in a magazine intended for consumption by opinion formers on the British left is surely not accidental.
More than this, Hassan goes on to make the moral case for Socialist intervention, “Isn’t Socialism,” he asks, “about protecting the weak and vulnerable? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than an unborn child?” (New Statesman: 12-18 October).
Yet, Hassan’s article, while focusing on rubbishing repeated claims made on the political left, and supporting the Conservative health minister’s position that the allowable gestation time should be reduced, does not fail to point out that he himself is anti-abortion. That is to say, in absolute terms, Pro-life.
In other words, while clearly Hassan would be pleased to see a reduction, his ultimate position, while nuanced and well-articulated, is that abortion is wrong, that there is such a thing as a right to life and that no man or woman has the right to trump it.
Again, a pro-life position is an absolute. You are either for it or against it. And even if you are only against it in the most dramatic of circumstances, you are, by these terms, defined, as pro-choice.
What does this line of enquiry teach me?
Well, it leaves me pro-choice, where I began. And it leaves me, broadly speaking, reticent to put forward my own opinion when I myself have neither fathered any nor wrestled with the inherent choices which confront us with unwanted pregnancies.
Yet, my position is not as it was a few days ago, not because I have learned very much, but because I have learned enough to question my own preconceptions. This does not inform the debate, and I should avoid being to self-satisfied about the merits of self-seeking catharsis. But, I think I can see more clearly something too, which is that my position is no longer dominated by a fiercely held fear of the personal consequences on my own and my partners life, but by a more holistic concern for all of the protagonists. And inherent is this is a recognition that a foetus is a life and that as a result, it has a soul and a possible future.
Clearly, it is merely evidence of my own immaturity to point out that this was not always evident to me, in the past, but a more substantive point might be that recognition of the creation and existence of a separate being, with possibilities more infinite than our own, is a prerequisite to fully grappling with the complicated decisions lying at the root of this most divisive of debates.
And, if I am pro-choice, and I think that I am, and recognise a woman’s ultimate sovereignty over the life of this being, I must also recognise more clearly the responsibility that men have for that beings future, by ensuring that her decision is taken against a backdrop of potential futures laid out in love and optimism, rather than leading a discussion based on a desperate desire to escape the consequences of your actions.
This opens up further implications for masculinity. For if your role as a Pro-choice, male is to provide potential futures which allow a pregnant partner to make the choice in the best interests of the child, then so it follows that there are moral limitations on the rights of men to procreate at all when their emotional and fiscal stake in society is insufficiently developed to adequately fulfil the responsibilities he may encounter.
Pro-Life religious groups already tackle this issue head on, with campaigns and youth groups designed to encourage responsibility and chastity among the young. I might question the approach, but it seems to me that there is no credible alternative among pro-choicers which seek to encourage young men to take seriously, their part in what could well change and affect lives well beyond their own.