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.