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How can a man argue women's rights?

The recent debate over abortion has left many women feeling angry, and rightly so - it's not a man's place to judge our right to abortion.

When Mehdi Hasan wrote his ‘Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty’  piece, there was (unsurprisingly) a seemingly endless range of criticisms. He was dubbed arrogant, factually inaccurate, and ignorant of women’s lives.

There was one criticism though that he couldn’t be blamed for: he’s a man.

A man arguing against a woman’s rights becomes particularly toxic when rooting his position in ‘the left’. There is, after all, a long-standing discomfort with the leftist men willing to ignore the rights they don’t personally need. There is, understandably, a continual anger with the implied underlying belief that equality is pivotal – unless it’s gender equality, in which case it’s marginal and discardable.

But the issue goes beyond one blog to wider thoughts on what each of us can credibly wade in on. If identity and lived experience are to count for anything: should a man ever feel he can argue against abortion?

‘Pro-lifers’ like to say abortion isn’t a gender issue, but a “moral” one. Putting to the side the fact that having an abortion is a decision only one gender will ever face, it’s a rationale that can be used by any dominant group uncomfortable with progress being made by the marginalised.

Opponents of equal marriage often claim it’s a matter of ‘morality’. In that case, though, it leads to accusations of prejudice more than acceptance.

I can't see how a man can try to take a woman's right to control her reproduction any more than a straight person can attempt to prevent a gay person's right to marry. Though quite within their power to express an opinion, it’s one that they have to admit, means very little. Worse, their opinion appears the voice of privilege attempting to, at the least, judge the ‘other’ and at the most control them.

A straight person will never be told they don’t have the basic right to marry; a right the dominant group have and take as guaranteed. A straight person will never have lived within a society that wants a say in their private lives, or had to make their choices against cultural judgement. A straight person will never have to remember the years that marriage wasn’t an option, to be fully aware their ‘rights’ aren’t fundamental but expendable ones that can be taken off the table.

Some things aren’t “moral issues” but people’s lives. Lives that only they are living.

Abortion, for many men, is an abstract idea. It’s not their fault. Without having a biological and social experience few things seem as real. Yet there are some men who are quite comfortable in making their case anyway, who, with no attempt to empathise with another’s group’s lives, claim abortion is wrong and no woman should make that decision.

It’s not hard to see why that would produce a particular level of anger.

You are arguing that, despite what a woman wants or what pregnancy will do to her body, mind, or future, you know better. You, who don’t bleed monthly, don’t risk pregnancy every time you have sex, who don’t live with the idea that the Government can change its mind on what it allows you to do with your own body.  

The easy response is what about infertile women? Do they not get a say in abortion? It’s an argument that’s routinely extended to lesbians, transsexual women, and even the post-menopausal. Even if the comparison was logical – and it’s not (this is about living as a woman, not the ability to fulfil the reproductive role of one) – truth is, it doesn’t matter. Just as one person’s experience of abortion doesn’t define anyone else’s, one person’s opinion on abortion shouldn’t dictate others.

It isn’t that a man’s opinion on abortion doesn’t count. It’s that no one’s but the woman who’s considering it does.