Abortion, and the right- and left-wings

There was a fascinating RightMinds piece by Melanie Phillips on the row generated by the lefties Deborah Orr and Mehdi Hasan as they argued that being “pro-life” is not necessarily to be right-wing. I am not a fan of Ms Phillips’ argument.

Ms Phillips seemed to contradict herself almost from the start when she said (a) that there are Labour-voters who aren’t “pro-choice” and Conservative voters who aren’t “pro life” and then went on at length to (b) describe the various unpleasant characteristics of the left which align very well with being “pro choice”. On this latter tendancy she wrote:

This is because essential to the Left is, first, a secularist onslaught against Biblical morality — including the acknowledgement of the innate value of human life and the need to respect it – and its replacement by the unchallengeable authority of subjective desires. And second, the left is governed by the Manichean belief that everything not the left is the right; that the left is the embodiment of virtue; and that the right is therefore irredeemably evil.

She went on to argue that lefties are dominated by a need to define themselves as being in the virtuous left camp and will shut down reasonable argument if it disrupts their orthodoxy.

There are some problems with this argument. One is that the left has only recently become very secularist and that only some religious people have a strongly “pro life” view; others are taken by the “pro-choice” argument; and many seek a sensible compromise between the two extremes. (That would add up to a policy which respects the unborn but also the mother-to-be.)

There is something to be said for the view that the left hates the right as the embodiment of Fascist or patriarchal or imperialist or exploitative evil. But not all the left is that primitive and some of the right reciprocate with their own litany of hate toward the left. Indeed, the right is quite properly reactionary: it is always putting out fires started by the progressive left.

Indeed, the intellectual left is – in the terms Ms Phillips is using – is probably not very representative of the political left for all that it is loud. I can easily imagine, for instance, that there are plenty of working class or union-orientated Labour-supporters, many of them women, who are uneasy about “extreme” “pro life” positions. Indeed, there are many on the practical left for whom the nexus of feminist, liberationist, 60s social revolutionary, studentish, anti-imperialist and anti-American biases seem quite dubious and something of a distraction from standing up for the workers.

There is further difficult in Ms Phillips’ arguing that:

The Left is not compassionate, generous or humane at all but is defined by selfish individualism, callous utilitarianism and narcissistic self-regard.

The trouble with that sentence is that it is just as possible, and even rather more reasonable to open it with the words, “The Right….”. If we were to do that, I could accept that both camps have to defend themselves against the charges brought. But the right would have one very tough and strong defence of its selfishness. This is that the right believes in constructing society out of the human fabric as we have it – perhaps especially including selfishness. The best one can say of the left is that it is doing its best to expunge such unpleasantness. So the point here is that the right is  liberatingly honest about selfishness and the left is full of dangerous humbug about it.

I have often wondered quite why and at what precise points I don’t warm to Ms Phillips’ arguments – either as to style or content. I hope I am beginning to understand.

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Publication date

19 October 2012


Mind & body