No, you cannot be left-wing and pro-life

What Mehdi Hasan’s article in the New Statesman did was lay bare exactly the problem that some left-wing men have with women’s rights. They see them as optional extras, auxiliary rights and the women who demand them as being individualistic and selfish. In fact, what we are doing when we campaign for sexual and reproductive rights is campaign to be considered full human beings. And that campaign starts with our bodily autonomy.

Those that reduce pro-choice campaigning to the level of “fetishistic choice” are those that see human rights as being default male. No left wing man would call freedom of expression the fetishisation of free speech. Instead they would see how that right upholds a free society. How censorship is part of the mechanism of an authoritarian state.

So too with access to abortion. Sexual and reproductive rights are not a smorgasbord of women’s rights that you can just pick abortion out of and still enjoy the rest. Instead when you remove or restrict abortion you endanger women’s health and rights. Every country with heavy restrictions or bans on abortion have high maternal mortality – women die without it. No country that restricts abortion respects women; provides adequate access for women and girls to education, work or political office. They are countries where women are second class citizens and where ethnic minority women and poor women are 3rd or 4th.

When I campaign for access to abortion and sexual and reproductive rights (for I do not separate them) I am not just campaigning for a medical procedure or change in health policy. I am campaigning for my bodily autonomy. Without that, I cannot be considered an equal human being to a man.

It is not the Y chromosome that makes men less qualified to talk about abortion. It is your lack of a womb and a vagina that makes you less qualified. You do not have to be confronted with your fertility every day. You do not bleed regularly. You do not risk pregnancy whenever you have sex. You do not have to ever carry a foetus to term, to give birth, to breastfeed, to take time off work, hamper your career, risk poverty and ill health due to pregnancy. You do not have your internal organs turned into a public place for people to debate over, legislate over and pronounce over. Therefore you find it very easy to see abortion as a optional extra for this “other”, these women. And you then see women  as selfish or individualistic for making these demands for rights you don’t need.

For women, our fight for equality starts very viscerally with our bodies and the very space we can take up in the world. Our bodies are our battleground; the fight for control over our internal organs, what we put into our bodies, what we wear, where we walk, freedom from harm within our homes, our schools and our workplaces. For women, our rights are personal and visceral as much as we all fight for our freedom from torture. And if you think freedom from torture is alarmist in the debate over abortion, I would refer you to the case of Nicaragua, where their total ban on abortion in all circumstances has been taken to the UN Committee Against Torture.

To view women’s rights as simply desirable rather than essential, as an optional extra rather than necessary for our mere survival, is what allows us to negotiate with the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan. Peace is important but peace for women and girls can wait no matter how many 14 year old girls are shot in the head for wanting an education. It is the idea that women’s rights will be achieved AFTER other “more important” “male” rights are achieved. It allows people on the left to think that women’s right to justice for allegedly being raped and molested are not as important as an imaginary global conspiracy to jail a darling of the Left. The Left have a long history of postponing women’s rights until their socialist revolution has happened, their war has been won, their peace declared, their poster-boy has defeated capitalism. But of course it never comes. There is always another reason why women have to wait for their rights and why they are being selfish for having the temerity to fight for them.

We can have the arguments about time-limits and viability, about the public health reasons for access to abortion, about how “emotional” we all feel when we see an ultra-sound or how “inevitable” it is that women earn less and are treated worse because they happen to have children. But all of this counts for nought if you do not see women’s rights as fundamental human rights and women as being equal human beings.

So no, you cannot be left-wing and pro-life. You cannot be left wing and “progressive” if you think half of the world’s population can hang-on or sacrifice or just stop being so bourgeois for demanding that they are treated as equals. To fight for equality is at the very least, to acknowledge the biological difference that keeps women oppressed and fight to overcome that. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights are part of our struggle for survival and will not be trivialised or ignored by men who claim to fight for equality.

41 Responses to “No, you cannot be left-wing and pro-life”

  • Greg Says:

    That’s a fucking brilliant piece of writing.

  • Nat Says:

    Excellent article, though it’s important to remember some men also have wombs and vaginas. Though I am yet to meet one who’d be against sexual and reproductive rights for all.

  • H Says:

    Neat. Very neat bit of left-wing argument, following the standard rule of never, ever, ever ever ever ever honestly say what your opponent’s point of view is if it could possibly be embarrassing.

    I’m glad to hear this solid confession that being Left Wing means being Pro Death. I mean we knew that already (look at Mao), but it’s nice to have it in the open (do you see how easy this dumb technique is?)

  • caroline doree (@carolinedoree) Says:

    Wonderful piece of writing, but said that it needed saying.

  • Acleron Says:

    Excellent article.

    @HSays How about addressing the arguments rather than propagandising.

  • Paul Wood Says:

    “To fight for equality is at the very least, to acknowledge the biological difference that keeps women oppressed and fight to overcome that. ” Sounds like it is biology she wants to overcome. The idea that biology is divinely ordained and women intended for another destiny than men she might not consider progressive – nor the atheist Freud’s view that biology is destiny.

    ‘The concept of life itself has warped. People who go white with rage at the idea of any restriction on the abortion of human foetuses get even more beside themselves at any killing of wild animals by human beings.’ Charles Moore on Saturday

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    Biology is not destiny, biology is fact. “over-coming biology” to achieve equality means enforcing women sexual and reproductive rights. This means the right to decide if or when to have children and the spacing between them. It means having access to information about your sexual health and rights. Access to contraception, to abortion, to sexual health clinics and treatment for gynaecological health. It means stopping early and forced marriages as early pregnancy heightens the risk of death in childbirth. It means empowering women to refuse sex if they want to and enforce condom use if they want to.

    It means childcare and non-discrimination for women who have children. And healthcare for older women as they go through the menopause and risk of breast cancer increases.

    That is what “over-coming biology” means because potentially women risk death and morbidity due to their reproduction.

  • Beef Says:

    I don’t get it. You can’t be ‘left wing’ without being pro-choice? What does ‘left wing’ even mean anymore? My view on reproductive rights must coincide with my view on fiscal policy? I am pro-choice myself, but the hysteria surrounding Mr. Hasan’s post is ludicrous.

  • Mary Says:

    >>No country that restricts abortion respects women; provides adequate access for women and girls to education, work or political office. They are countries where women are second class citizens and where ethnic minority women and poor women are 3rd or 4th.

    This is the only thing I would disagree with: I’d say it’s only true to the extent that no country has adequate access to education, work and political office for women, and women and especially poor or ethnic minority women are 3rd-class citizens. Ireland has about the same access to education and political office as the UK does, but there is no abortion in the 26 counties.

    Which works pretty well for *most* Irish women who can afford the Ryanair flight to Great Britain, but means safe legal abortion is absolutely unaccessible for poorer women, refugees and asylum seekers, women who have controlling partners and so on, so those women either have to risk illegal abortions or endure forced pregnancies.

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    @Mary I think that’s a fair comment. Thanks.

  • Elizabeth Says:

    Great piece, though it might be worth adding heterosexual to ‘you do not risk pregnancy every time you have sex’.

  • Will Says:

    An abortion is a fucking horrific, last resort action to be taken when there is no other option, not a hard won badge of feminist honour.

    I’m left wing, and I’m pro life. I wouldn’t choose to ban abortion, but taking what is for any decent person a really distressing and personal issue and making it part of a wider feminist debate is sick and disingenuous.

    When I fuck, I wear a condom. Never got a girl pregnant. Is that difficult?

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    @BeefSays Yes, I think equality, healthcare and women’s access to healthcare does need to link to your fiscal policy.

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    @Will Yes, it is difficult. No woman has an abortion lightly, it’s not something any woman *wants* to do but it is sometimes necessary.

    Condoms fail, women are pressured into having sex without them, women and men don’t have access to contraception or sexual health advice or education, there are many many reasons why unwanted pregnancies occur. Which is why access to abortion is necessary.

    And it is part of a feminist debate because it’s about women being able to access their sexual and reproductive rights – something that is being denied or restricted the world over.

  • Tom Says:

    I agree with all of this except for your conclusion, or more specifically that you cannot be left wing and prolife.

    Of course you can- you just have a different opinion on that particular issue. The rest of your politics can still be left wing.

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    @Tom This is my point, I don’t believe that you can be legitimately left-wing if you are leaving out the rights of half the world’s population.

    Access to abortion may not be a right that you ever have to or ever want to exercise but that does not mean that it is not fundamental for women’s rights.

  • Emmie Baker Larner Says:

    Another brilliant posting to counter Hasan’s piece. Thanks!

  • Will Says:


    Well, I did see self styled feminist icon C*itlin M*ran pretty much gloating over having one in an article recently, and we all know some idiot who’s on their fifth, so no. It’s not something people always do with a heavy heart after much consideration, having exhausted all other possibilities. I maintain that for ‘some women’ it’s nothing more than a trip to the dentists to have a tooth pulled, and a kick in the teeth for the male chauvinist pigs.

    Anyway. I’m left wing, and I’m pro life. Those things really aren’t mutually exclusive. Similarly, I can also be an atheist and not feel myself allied with Dawkins and his merry band of goading asshats.

    I understand this is an important debate in relation to womens rights worldwide, and to reiterate, I do not think abortion should be banned, but I’d just like to see it given the
    seriousness it deserves as a topic, outside of the wider feminist debate. It’s far more of a human rights issue than a womens rights issue.

  • EP Says:

    The media portray the stereotypical woman in need of an abortion as a feckless risk-taker, killing her baby through a selfish refusal to learn from her mistakes. In reality no method of contraception is 100% effective and accidents can and do happen, to couples of all ages, social classes and educational levels.

    Female sterilisation, for example, fails for about 1 in 200 women, and the stats for the non-permanent methods are even more frightening. Condoms are 98% effective, which means they are 2% ineffective, which means per year 2 couples in 100 will conceive when using them. That’s just the stat for “careful use”, discounting anyone who may have opened the wrapper with their teeth, used an oil-based lubricant, or ever put one on while drunk- and the people in that last category are probably not in a tiny minority. Will- it’s great that you use condoms, but maybe take a look at those statistics (from the NHS Choices site), realise that not everyone is as lucky as you have been, and perhaps consider a backup method.

    Before anyone suggests abstinence as a 100% effective method, remember that it doesn’t protect against rape. Maybe one day I’ll support a total ban on abortion, but that will be the day we also have 100% effective contraception, prevention and cures for all birth defects, no rape whatsoever, and probably a bit of a chilly day in Hell.

    Personally I use condoms with the Nexplanon implant as a backup. Last week I had a period for the first time since having the implant inserted and I became worried that it may have failed. reading the patient information section of the manufacturer’s website I came across the phrase “Keeping a diary can help you monitor how your bleeding pattern changes” along with a handy download-and-print PDF “bleeding diary”. This caused my partner to remark “it’s amazing the things you women have to go through to not get pregnant”. I’m lucky to have someone who appreciates this at a time when so many men appear not to. Perhaps they would if they knew what it felt like to have a healthcare professional recommend that they keep a “bleeding diary”…

  • Mary Says:

    >>we all know some idiot who’s on their fifth

    Do we?!! I certainly don’t. I know a very few people who’ve had more than one abortion because for some reason normal contraception doesn’t work for them, wasn’t available to them or because they were so young or poorly informed they didn’t know how to use it, or who didn’t have a choice in whether or not they used it. I know quite a few people who considered an abortion a relatively minor procedure and didn’t feel particularly guilty about it or spend very long agonising over the decision. I don’t know anyone who’s “on their fifth”.

  • Andrew Holding Says:

    I get the piece but really don’t agree with “It is not the Y chromosome that makes men less qualified to talk about abortion. It is your lack of a womb and a vagina that makes you less qualified. You do not have to be confronted with your fertility every day. You do not bleed regularly.”

    Does this mean women who are born infertile, without a uterus (it does happen) or any of the other thing that mean they will never experience what you suggest are less qualified? I’m not ready to tell someone who, through no fault of their won, can never have children that they’re less qualified to talk about abortion law because of it.

    Yes these are experiences that not everyone will have, but is in essences life. We all have different experiences. It doesn’t matter we label people by chromosome or organ. What makes someone qualified to discuss it is being informed, from experiences or from learning, and construct an argument. The experiences you discuss are completely true in that they build that picture and perhaps women may well always have a head start. That doesn’t however goes as far to me to suggest someone with a uterus is automatically more qualified than one with without.

    Maybe, I’m wrong. Maybe I’m misreading it. I’m wasn’t going to say anything because I’m not qualified to discuss this, but I want to learn. I need to learn. I have two daughters and this is their future rights we’re talking about, so I care more that you could imagine. No-one else will.

  • Andrew Holding Says:

    “I’m not qualified to discuss this” – Whoops, that by my own standards. That look horribly aggressive on a reread. Sorry about the typo’s too can’t find an edit button.

  • Katherine Says:

    ‘I maintain that for ‘some women’ it’s nothing more than a trip to the dentists to have a tooth pulled, and a kick in the teeth for the male chauvinist pigs’.

    @Will You have just served to underline the salience of the argument and not undermined it in any way. How can you possibly proclaim to be left wing and supportive of social equality whilst in the same breath flippantly denigrating the importance women’s sexual and reproductive rights?

  • Vida_boheme Says:

    As a life-long lefty, a mother who has carried four children, and a woman that could not contemplate an abortion personally, I agree with every word of this blog. Brava! My personal choice not to have an abortion does not make me pro-life, it makes me PRO-CHOICE. My decision was made from the luxury of being in a country that allows that choice as mine. The security of a health service that cared for me, and helped me deliver three healthy children in relative safety, and a supportive relationship that recognised my choice to carry a child or not.

    Equally, I have actively helped friends whose choice was different. I’d do so again in a heartbeat. I would take to the streets against any future attempt to restrict the reproductive choice of my daughters. Defending women’s right to decide what happens to their bodies is an essential part of equality. You can’t claim the right to decide what happens in a woman’s womb and maintain that you regard her as your equal. What is so difficult to understand about that?

    As to Will’s comment that he’s “Never got a girl pregnant” – I’d content yourself with saying you’re not aware of any pregnancies. Realistically, the chances are you could have, and just haven’t been told.

  • H Says:

    “@HSays How about addressing the arguments rather than propagandising.

    @Acleron, Naomi doesn’t so why should I? She’s happy to refuse to mention anything about the opposite case against her that might discombobulate her, so why should I? She never rises above propaganda, so why should I?

  • Dave Whitlock Says:

    Completely correct analysis. You can’t be liberal and progressive if you ignore the rights of women to control their own bodies.

    No one ever wants an abortion. Sometimes it is the least bad of a number of bad options.

    If you want to reduce the number of abortions, there are lots of ways that don’t intrude on anyone’s rights. Work for good sex education, easily available birth control, and prevention of sexual violence against women and people of good will who want to reduce abortions will work with you.

  • Mary Says:

    >>Does this mean women who are born infertile, without a uterus (it does happen) or any of the other thing that mean they will never experience what you suggest are less qualified?

    @Andrew Holding – I don’t really have a problem with that because I don’t think anyone, male or female, cis or trans, fertile or infertile, gets to tell other people what decision they should make.

    It *is* particularly galling when you read a cis man making the pro-life case and you know that they have literally never had to consider the effects of an unwanted pregnancy on their life. Because even an infertile woman probably had some period in her life when she believed she was fertile and took contraceptive precautions, or was trying to get pregnant.

    But yeah, if someone is a woman who has passed the menopause or who knows they are infertile saying that they don’t think other woman should have the right to choose, I find that nearly as galling. And it’s pretty close when it’s a woman who is fertile.

    The further someone is and the less likely they’ve ever had to consider that position themselves, the more galling I find it. But it’s pretty darn close in all cases.

  • I am the 9% Says:


    hmm you don’t sound very left wing. You don’t sound like you’ve actually red C*itlin M*rans writings on abortion. You also don’t sound like a very nice person, kind of like an intentional troll – hmm. (but thats by the by).

    Caitlin in her chapter in How to a Woman sure as heck never gloated over having an abotion. She states that it was a quick decision, but she sure as heck never held it up as an easy or flippant one- just one which she instinctively knew was the right decision.

    I’ve had an abortion – I’m the horrific baby killing post 12 week 9% which is currently being targeted. But I’m sure as heck not holding it up as a badge of honor and am highly offended by your implication that I’m secretly pleased that I’ve been through some ‘feminist induction ritual’. The whole situation was horrible – but made better by supportive doctors and abortion clinic staff (who just for the record every step of the way said ‘are you sure this is what you want to do, are you being pressured to make this decision, and you can change your mind at any time).But society and public opinion made me feel ashamed of what was the product of a contraceptive failure (but this is also not to say that I would ever decry the right of anyone pregnant by their own mistakes to an abortion). I had the worst conversations I ever had to have with my family. My body changed in ways which left me with permanent scars. My sense of self worth was kicked into the ground by the actions of the responsible male partner. I had to endure a pretty bleak medical procedure (despite support staff and excellent facilities). I don’t wish abortions on anyone. but it was for me and is for others sometimes the right and necessary decision.

    Yes it is a human rights issue, and one which does ultimately affect all genders. But the prioritsation on the removal of this right, and call for lower time frames makes it a human right being removed from women – which in turn makes it a woman’s right’s issue in equal measure.

    Men have the right to an opinion on the subject – sure. But they nor women have the right to deny women of the right to make the final choice or have access to abortions.

    But why are we having this discussion, is it because of some ground breaking new evidence that flies in the face of existing medical research – no its because Jeremy Hunt aired an ill informed opinion. So no there is no reason we should be putting our energies into removing this human right and subsequently denying women’s rights or even politically discussing it.

  • Will Says:


    I’m neither a troll, nor a horrible person, I just have a different opinion to you.

    That’s pretty much it. I’ve said my bit…didn’t actually think it was that controversial.

  • Soupy One Says:


    Majestic, I loved the piece:

    “The Left have a long history of postponing women’s rights until their socialist revolution has happened, their war has been won, their peace declared, their poster-boy has defeated capitalism.”

    So true.

  • Sarah Says:

    Yeah. Of course you can. What a ridiculous question.

    Of course you can’t be *your* type of left wing, and pro-life. Of course you would judge them as being ‘wrong’ for disagreeing with you. But you are not the arbiter of left-wingness, and being excluded from *your* club of left-wingers doesn’t exclude people from the entire left wing because you are not the entire left wing, you’re some people.

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    It’s not *my* left-wing club, this is about moral consistency. If you care about human rights and equality then that means for women too (shock! horror!). If you think that you can and should control a woman’s body, then I question your commitment to equality.

  • Melvin Says:

    Brilliant piece Naomi. When Will says ” It’s far more of a human rights issue than a women’s rights issue” it sums it all up.
    If someone can’t see that women’s rights are human rights, inseparable and indivisible, then they don’t inhabit the same Left space that I do.

  • Servaas Says:

    Use the ‘Left’s’ world view and derive the concept of ‘human rights’ logically from that and I may consider what you’re saying.

  • Pavlov's Cat Says:

    Since somebody chose to throw in a point about infertile women, I thought it might be useful to contribute a point of view from one. I do not feel the slightest bit insulted if someone tells me that, given that I’ll never face the choice to have or not have an abortion, I may have less understanding of what a woman in that position might be going through. And just for the record, I’m pro-choice.

  • E. Manhattan Says:

    Of course men would have a different take on abortion if they were at risk for getting pregnant. I’m a man, I’ve never had to worry about that. I’

  • I’ve got your missing links right here (20 October 2012) » Gocnhin Archive Says:

    […] point-by-point dissection of an op/ed about “pro-life lefties”, and another good comment piece on the topic by Naomi […]

  • Ben Panter Says:

    Not getting involved with the debate but there is a small flaw in your research. Ireland is statistically the safest place in Europe to give birth and they have extremely confused abortion laws. Google is a great research tool.

  • Nelson Says:


    Was reading this and being totally agreeful all the way through .. until I got to the thinly-veiled Assange reference – and it reminded me of something that pissed me off mightily back when the whole thing was assploding all over twitter.

    I have to take issue with it – there’s an implication here (“global conspiracy”?) that anyone who thinks that Assange’s asylum claim is genuine and that he faces a real threat is somehow a “rape apologist” or at least sexist. In fact, the “rape apologist” thing is not just an implication, it’s something that’s been said directly to me on twitter (including, most upsettingly, by the otherwise brilliant Sarah Ditum). I’ve tried to explain why this is not the case – though, admittedly, I’ve only tried on Twitter in 140 chars. I might as well have attempted to embroider my thoughts onto someone’s jumper while they’re cycling past me, during a hurricane.

    I’m not going to re-hash the legal arguments about the extradition threat. It’s very dull. Suffice it to say that we may well disagree on that. Personally, I’m not sure the legalities are massively relevant – I didn’t think torture was legal, nor Guantanamo, nor the Iraq war. Ho hum. Seems to me that the mighty can make their own laws when they need to.

    But this isn’t really about whether or not we disagree – it’s about whether or not we respect each other’s right to disagree on the seriousness of the threat to Assange – without assuming that the other is a CIA agent/idiot/misogynist/George Galloway etc.

    What I’m asking here is that you (and anyone else reading this) simply accepts that I (and many, many others like me) believe what I say I believe about the extradition threat. I believed the US was after Assange before the allegations were made, and long before asylum was requested. I believe that Assange has few options available to him to avoid the long reach of US injustice and the risk of imprisonment and torture for his role in Wikileaks. It’s not a political convenience (with all that might imply about my gender politics) and Julian Assange is not my “hero” or “darling”. And it’s not that I think the rape allegations are less important than Assange’s rights. But nor do I think they automatically trump any other concerns in this bizarre and unique case. This is shit I’ve thought about, a lot. I still believe what I say I believe. Yet I meet this, again and again. Back in July, my belief in this US threat merely made me a kooky “conspiracy-theorist”. But I can hardly complain about being mildly patronised by people who reckon they know better – hell, it’s one of my favourite pastimes. Since August though, this same belief has suddenly made me, at best, a thoughtless sexist and, at worst, some kind of misogynist or rape apologist. It’s beyond irritating – it’s massively offensive.

    Sorry for long comment on old post, triggered largely by remembered hurt from someone else :) Hope this finds you well, wise and powerful.


    ps. And to some bloke above me there in the comments… no, you can’t oppose any woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body and still be left-wing. To be a leftie you need to truly understand, right down at the base of your tail, that there’s no way of dividing the world into “them” and “us” – there’s always just “us”. Everyone you meet still exists when you’re not there and, behind their eyes, they have their own thoughts and aspirations, just like you. This happens like, literally, ALL THE TIME. It’s mad. Srsly.

    pps. To Internet Warriors who have missed my point and want to show me articles called “Clever Reasons Why It’s Ok To Dismiss Any Risk To Assange And Insist That Even Though There’s Definitely No Risk Whatsoever That He Could Be Extradited, It’s Still Impossible For Sweden To Publicly Confirm That There’s No Risk Whatsoever That He’ll Be Extradited – by David Allen Green”, I’ve read them. All of them. And loads of other stuff about it that you haven’t read. We will still disagree. But thanks. Tell you what, have a link to a proposed solution by those radical extremists at Amnesty, instead:

  • Keith Emery Says:

    Though I agree with your article, it still really frustrates me. “It’s your lack of a womb that makes you less qualified”. I volunteer at multiple domestic violence shelters and advocate for women in hospital helping them obtain ex parte’s. My coworkers are only women basically, I’ve once worked with one man in the past 5 months. When I started I didn’t realize that only women did this work. I think the main reason it’s completely one sided in gender is that domestic violence shelter is only 30 or 40 years old and it was started by women who escaped abuse themselves. I think slowly it will become more gender integrated as it gains more gov’t recognition and funding.
    Anyway I’ve had the feeling, though I’m not saying it is a true comparison (it’s just an impulsive thought), that it’s like working with a group let’s say white people escaping hate crimes from minorities, and the only people who work with them in the shelter are other white people.
    That may not be a true or fair comparison, it could be embarrassingly fallacious, but the sentiment exists. I don’t know what the most educated view is on this- is gender as illusory as race? I don’t see how your article benefits by saying men can’t understand the issue. It’s very frustrating to want to help but feeling excluded/incapable/divided.
    I’m pro choice but I don’t think abortion beyond rape/incest/maternal mortality is a morally obvious question. Just saying pro lifers are fundamentally anti-woman is more destructive than it is illuminating.
    I say all this, treading very lightly, these are not convictions just questions, I love my job and working with women all day is awesome, I prefer it to my previous job working construction with all men, and I was raised by a single mother (who had an abortion).

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