Dominic Lawson: Why can't men express a view that many women share?

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The Independent Online

Whatever could have possessed Jeremy Hunt, the newly-appointed Health Secretary, to express his opinion on abortion? Any man who steps into this moral minefield is asking to be blown sky-high.

Still I'm going to walk, Y chromosome and all, into the same minefield – and not just for the excitement of encountering the smouldering remains of Mr Hunt. First of all, why should he not have expressed his opinion? He was giving a general interview, and The Times' journalists, observing that he had previously voted to bring the legal limit for termination of pregnancy down to 12 weeks, asked him if he remained of that opinion. He replied that he was, adding that "it's just my view about the incredibly difficult question about the moment that we deem life to start".

Perhaps Hunt will become much more of a bland minister after the blow-back this remark caused; but if we want our politicians to say what they really think – as is always claimed—then the press doesn't exactly encourage them by behaving as it has over the past few days.

I am thinking especially of the Daily Mirror, which under the tasteful headline "Time to terminate Jeremy Hunt's career", described him as a "moronic meerkat... who has attempted political self-abortion". By comparison, this newspaper's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was positively restrained in calling Hunt "slithery"; though Yasmin uncorked "baleful" to sum up Maria Miller, the minister who – in another interview last week – expressed her view that the term limit for abortions should come down from 24 to 20 weeks.

Among Miller's responsibilities in Cabinet are "women" (that's what it says), so her interjection has been seen as monstrously inappropriate; and her accompanying it with the remark that she herself is "a feminist" is seen as bizarre beyond belief. The Guardian's Women's Blog Editor described her position as "astonishing", while in the same paper Tanya Gold levelled the most damning charge of all: "I suspect that Miller is pro-life." Good heavens, let's send round the thought police immediately.

These commentators give the impression that they are speaking for all women. Yet, if anything, women are more likely than men to feel that abortion laws should be tightened. The truth is that men tend to like abortion on demand, partly because it is often they who are doing the demanding, and partly because it makes them feel it's not essential to wear a condom when involved in casual one-night stands.

Less anecdotally, as a piece in the New Statesman pointed out: "A Yougov poll in January found that of the 37 per cent of Britons who favoured a lowering of the 24-week limit (34 per cent supported the status quo) the majority were women". Two months later a similar survey by the Angus Reid polling organisation found that while 35 per cent of men were in favour of a reduction in the 24-week limit, 59 per cent of women were of that opinion.

On this basis we can see that Maria Miller is more representative of women's opinion than her female critics on this paper and The Guardian. Those critics are doubtless more representative of the readers of these newspapers than Miller; but, believe it or not, ministers are quite keen to be in tune with the views of an even wider segment of the general population.

Why should women be more horrified by late-term abortions than men? Possibly it is because only someone who has carried a child can viscerally comprehend what abortion actually means; they feel what we men only know from books: how soon the foetus begins moving quite independently.

As a standard text book, Continuity in Neural Functions from Pre-natal to Post-natal life, noted almost 30 years ago, "movements of the young foetus do not appear to be uncoordinated and random but specific and recognisably patterned." All this, of course, is the mirror image of the most powerful pro-choice argument, that only the woman concerned should decide what should happen to the contents of her own uterus, moving or otherwise.

That view was strikingly expressed by Caitlin Moran, who wrote last week of her own choice to have an abortion, that: "It took me longer to decide what worktops to have in the kitchen than whether I was prepared to spend the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being". Obviously the consideration of giving up such an unwanted child for adoption was not possible in less time than it takes to choose pine-effect over formica. She went on to lament that "abortions are never seen as a positive thing, as any other operation to remedy a potentially life-ruining condition would".

This is the embryo as tumour; and expressed in such terms, of course no one would dream of disagreeing with Moran, or indeed anyone else who made a similar decision. Yet as Jeremy Hunt rather clumsily observed, it is about the idea of life, when it begins and what our obligations are towards that unborn child – as a society, rather than as the individual parent to-be. This is where the abortion debate appears, on the surface, to be an unusual one in which "the right" argues for some sort of societal good and the "left" for a kind of atomised individualism: pure personal choice before all other, wider human considerations.

In fact it is grotesquely simplistic and even plain wrong to assert that the pro-life position is inherently right-wing, at least in this country, where we do not have the culture wars of the US. That Yougov poll also showed that support of a reduction in the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks was highest among those who also expressed a preference for Labour, rather than for either of the other two main parties.

It may well be that many who would identify themselves as on the left are especially horrified by eugenic abortions. These are the terminations which tend to be the latest in pregnancy, for Down's Syndrome mostly, but also for purely physical abnormalities such as club foot or cleft lip and palate. It was these and other eugenic abortions that The Mirror seemed to have in mind when it said that "if Hunt had his way, thousands more disabled children would be born each year". Although, as if suddenly remembering the spirit of the Paralympics, the editorial slammed on the brakes with: "Of course, there are many, many disabled people in Britain who lead full and happy lives." Given the chance to live in the first place, of course.