Christina Patterson: The row over abortion has left little space for constructive discussion

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The Independent Online

The low point seemed to be the plastic doll. The low point of this discussion that's been going on for the past 10 days, and also for years, seemed, at the time, to be a little plastic doll. The plastic doll, which was fished out of a pocket by a man on Newsnight, looked a bit like a tiny ET, but was meant to look like a 12-week-old foetus. But after another week of discussions, on Twitter, and telly, and on radio and online, it now seems quite a good idea to swap words for plastic toys.

You could, for example, forget about words like "misogynist" and "evil", which are the kind of words a man called Mehdi Hasan said yesterday he didn't like. The man, who writes for a left-wing magazine, said on the Today programme that he'd been told he "was a traitor and an enemy". He had been told, he said, that by writing a column that said he was "pro-life", he had shown he was "less left-wing".

If you had never heard a discussion about abortion, you might wonder what being in favour of life had to do with politics, and why "the left" wasn't. But if you had heard discussions like this, which you probably have if you've been in this country over the past 10 days, you'd know that this was a discussion with special terms, and special rules.

You'd know, for example, that the people who say they are "pro-life" aren't talking about the lives of people, but the lives of fertilised eggs which might turn into people. And you'd know that the people who disagree with them don't say they're "anti-life", because you can't really say you're "anti-life", but say instead that they're "pro-choice". But when they say this, they don't mean that everyone has the right to make up their own mind about a complicated issue. They mean that everyone should agree with the choice they make.

You'd also know that when a Tory politician brings up the subject of abortion, just before their party conference, which is what set the whole discussion off, it isn't necessarily because they think it's the most important issue the country has to face. They might, for example, think that the economy was more important, but that they couldn't say anything all that positive about the economy, but they could say things that would make them sound "pro-life", and that this would cheer their party up.

And if you saw the response, on Twitter, to the Tory politician's suggestion that the time limit on abortion should be cut to 12 weeks, which included quite a few suggestions that it would have been better if he had been aborted, you might have thought that it didn't sound like people responding in a rational way. You might have thought that what it sounded like was a mob.

You might have wanted to point out that although 12 weeks was much, much less than the 24 weeks that was currently the legal limit in this country, it was the limit (at least for abortion "on demand") that applied in 16 out of 27 EU countries, including Denmark and France.

You might have wondered how all these people were so confident that the 24-week limit was right. You might, for example, have wondered if they had spent weeks looking at the latest research in neuroscience, and so were sure that whatever it was that was in the womb wasn't conscious, and couldn't feel pain. You might have wondered how they could be so certain about something that most scientists seemed to think you couldn't know.

You might have wanted to say that of course women should have the right to control their own bodies, but that a baby wasn't actually part of a woman's body. And that the argument, if you were allowed to have an argument, wasn't about women's bodies, but about when a foetus becomes a human being. And that a baby was, unless it was created in a test tube, something that was made by two people, and that it didn't seem quite fair to say that one of those people couldn't have a say.

You might have thought it wasn't a good idea to say it was "misogynistic" to think about cutting the limit, since nearly half of the women in a recent poll thought the limit should be cut, too. You might, in fact, have thought that it was rarely a good idea to speak as if you thought you were speaking on behalf of half the human race.

You might have thought all this, but also think that we should do much more to make sure women aren't forced to have babies they don't want. That there should, for example, be compulsory sex education, and contraceptive advice, in all schools. And that when girls, or women, discover they're pregnant with babies (or bundles of cells that might become babies) they don't want, they're encouraged to get the help they need as early as they can. And that they can do this without shame.

But if you had heard the discussions about abortion over the past 10 days, you might not think that the laws we have, which are, on balance, pretty good laws, came about through rational debate. You might think that the people who weren't absolutely sure that the laws were absolutely right were what the other people said they were: stupid, and evil, and "right-wing". You might even think that these people thought that those three things were the same.

And it makes you think that these people, who do seem to be largely on the left, and who do seem to think that people who don't share their views are stupid, or evil, wouldn't have a plastic foetus's chance in hell of winning an argument now.

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