The despotic demands of the anti-abortionists

Oliver Kamm

Mehdi Hasan, political director of the Huffington Post, caused a modest online controversy last week with an article opposing abortion. He said:

I consider abortion to be wrong because of, not in spite of, my progressive principles. That I am pro-life does not make me any less of a lefty.

In a riposte to his critics, he added:

"Pro-life" lefties do exist.

Well, yes; there can be no serious dispute about that. But the substantive issue is whether the tendentiously-termed “pro-life” position accords with liberty, ethics and rationality. It does not. Those who deny the ability of a woman to terminate a pregnancy are, by definition, on the side of reaction and state authority against personal liberty, women’s rights and the ethic of the family.

This isn’t a legitimate question of incommensurable values or competing rights that need to be traded off. To insist that a woman carry a foetus to term is (it is no hyperbole to say) not merely illiberal but despotic. That has long been the demand of autocrats and religious obscurantists, who are often – as in the strict prohibitions on abortion maintained by tsarist Russia – the same people. And it’s despotic even if you suppose, contrary to science and reason but consistent with religious dogma, that the cluster of cells that make up an embryo is a human life.

It is for considerations such as these – its authoritarianism and heedlessness of women’s welfare – that, I believe, Mehdi’s case sparked such criticism, in which I join. It’s a small point by comparison, but his citing Christopher Hitchens as a fellow-thinker on abortion is not right. Apparently, Mehdi has had second thoughts about the prudence of doing this only because Hitch is not universally popular.

I didn’t agree with Christopher, whom I knew well, on this issue, but he understood that there were many circumstances in which it would be undesirable to bring a foetus to term (and said so, in God is Not Great, p. 221). That point is not made by Mehdi, yet it’s a simple, minimal and humanitarian truth.


Public morality in Britain today lurches between the liberal and puritanical, seemingly at random. The public is shocked and disgusted by the abuse of teenagers, and scarcely less so when a 15-year-old girl runs away with her teacher. Yet it’s not even a decade since girls just a few months older than Megan Stammers could be found posing naked in national newspapers.

Even when set against a backdrop of soaring godlessness and collapsing social institutions, our morality has reached a conclusion that is “palpably right”, writes Hugo Rifkind

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