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Criticism of New Statesman Article on Abortion Debate

November 17, 2014

“So, the above is an actual debate about abortion that is happening, in England, in 2014 – Timothy Stanley and Brendan O’Neill discuss a medical procedure neither of them will ever need, which prevents a life-changing event that will never happen to them. Well done, guys.”

Notice the implicit individualist sentiment of this attitude towards the abortion debate. Why would somebody care about a medical procedure that they would personally never need? Never mind that somebody they love might want to have that medical procedure. Never mind that thousands of people throughout the world have this medical procedure. The point is that anybody who isn’t totally selfish cares about health issues no matter whether they personally are likely to be affected (e.g. ebola). Pregnancy of course does not happen to men in the biological sense, but men do become fathers and that is a life-changing event.

“Not only have Oxford Students For Life decided that – on a contentious issue of biology, ethics and women’s bodily autonomy – the people we really need to hear from are “men”; they’ve actually managed to restrict the field yet further to “white men who blog for the Telegraph”. What’s next? A debate on the pay gap, conducted entirely by the cast of Top Gear?”

Autonomy is important but there are at least some men capable of conducting an argument in a way that respects the autonomy of women. On the Telegraph point, it is unfortunately the case that opinion on abortion is usually strongly correlated with left/right loyalty. There are exceptions; I have reservations about abortion despite the fact that I identify as a Marxist and a Feminist, and I recall seeing Mehdi Hasan receiving lots of abuse on twitter for disagreeing with mainstream pro-choice arguments not too long ago. It’s true that the people who have concerns about abortion tend to be conservative; but are you going to respond to their arguments constructively or just arrogantly dismiss them on the grounds that you don’t approve of their overall political stance? No doubt our society is far too dominated by white middle class men, but the best way to cure this is to challenge them in debate rather than dismissing their [edit: sorry,i mean “our”] ideas.

” At any rate, despite the deafening giggling that’s greeted this bit of programming, Oxford Students for Life released a statement, promising that the event will go ahead regardless. It begins:

Free speech is a vital principle of a democratic society, and at a university of all places it should be protected. We’re very happy to discuss people’s concerns about the event, but it would be a shame if open debate was shut down.

Well thank the lord that some plucky upstart is still out there fighting for the freedom of successful white men to air their opinions on women’s bodies.”

The idea that it is somehow inappropriate for men to air their opinions on the issue of abortion seems misguided if understandable. As I mentioned above, women’s autonomy is important. But notice that the debate title OSFL are proposing does not suggest making abortion illegal. There is a huge difference between advocating for abortion to be criminalized, which I wholeheartedly agree would be an immoral violation of women’s autonomy, and being of the opinion that in at least some cases it would not be morally ideal to have an abortion. And if one has this opinion then one might think that the number of abortions which happen in our society is a problem.

The philosophy behind the ethics of abortion is murky and extremely difficult. The fact that we find it so difficult to know what to do in these cases does, I think, partly reflect that there are serious problems with the way our society thinks about morality. Feminists risk making an ethical mistake if they argue from the premise “women should not be legally prohibited from having abortions” to “it is always morally unproblematic for a woman to have an abortion.” This kind of argument is couched in the kind of lazy liberalism which I thought nearly all feminists today were determined to challenge. Many liberals would say that as long as one has a right to do something, it is morally acceptable to do it. For instance it is within one’s legal rights to insult somebody in the street for no reason, but that does not mean that it’s morally acceptable to do. Or to take a feminist example, it is within a husband’s rights to never do any housework, but that’s not acceptable either (assuming he is physically able). There is a serious debate to be had about the morality of abortion. It would be a great mistake to dismiss the arguments of an entire side of that debate on the mistaken charge that they are showing no respect for female autonomy. Any feminist who is eager to avoid being trapped by the liberal individualist way of thinking should realize this.

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