zaterdag 22 september 2007

Brendan O'Neill on Amnesty and Abortion

Spiked-online's Brendan O'Neill tears into Amnesty International's attitude towards abortion. Dismissing the Catholic Church as "an obscurantist institution, which argues that rape victims who become pregnant should consider their babies ‘a blessing’ from God", O'Neill saves most of his criticism for Amnesty's reluctance to support abortion rights in any but extreme cases (for rape victims and in case of pregnancies due to incest). O'Neill is particularly incensed by what he regards as the misanthropic motivation behind Amnesty's policy: "In other words, Amnesty supports abortion as a means of keeping in check African barbarism rather than as a right that African women should enjoy in the name of liberty and equality. This is not about calling for the right to choose as a common good, a right that might help elevate women’s status; rather it is about allowing abortion in certain circumstances as a corrective to rape and destruction.".

I'm enormously conflicted on this issue. I think the Catholic Church's attitude towards Amnesty has been extremely high-handed and unhelpful. At the same time, I would support Amnesty's policy of not calling for the right to an abortion quite independently from my own opinions on the subject. The strength of Amnesty lies precisely in the narrow and relatively politically neutral set of rights it supports. Brendan O'Neill contrasts the notion of human rights as instituted from above with what he sees as the liberatory potential of abortion rights: "Where human rights emphasise governments’ responsibilities to protect people from harm, the right to choose frees a woman from official prying into the decisions she makes about her body and her life; it increases her humanity, it makes her a fuller, more independent human being. The human rights agenda gives rise to Western advocacy on behalf of at-risk individuals, as groups like Amnesty and officials at the UN adopt victimised individuals in the developing world and campaign for their human rights to be reinstated; by contrast, real rights emphasise a person’s ability to be a self-advocate, if you like, to make decisions and take actions according to his or her own interests and desires.". Well, maybe. But regardless of the possible merits of this view, it is ideologically loaded to such an extent that I believe organizations such as Amnesty better steer clear of it.

On the issue of abortion rights itself, I'm not close to having a coherent viewpoint. Instinctively, I find the idea of abortion utterly repellent. I do not believe that a woman's right to choose can be supported without taking into account an unborn foetus' right to live. When precisely a foetus becomes enough of a human being to be assigned such a right is, I think, an unsolvable question. Children are in a state of total dependency on others and continue to develop towards full personhood until well after their birth, whereas at the same time I would have difficulty regarding a newly fertilized egg as endowed with rights. I would respect the consistency of extending a pro-choice position to postnatal infanticide, while at the same time finding the idea absolutely abhorrent. But my personal beliefs do not really allow for a rights-begin-at-conception kind of view either (I believe that a pro-life position might be defended on other grounds - though whether I would agree with such grounds I do not know. I don't think the conflict between rights and interests can be simplistically reduced one way or the other).

I'm unenthusiastically in favour of legal abortion, though. My main reasons being pragmatical (illegal abortions probably leading to more suffering and death). Some time ago I used to state that the fact that I will never be confronted with the "right to choose" myself meant that I had to withhold any standpoint on the morality or legality of abortion, but I now find that stance a bit craven.

In practice, though, the policy Amnesty International takes seems to me somewhat inconsistent. I don't see the rationale of supporting abortion rights for rape victims while not doing so for the general population. Because the same kind of conflict between rights exists in both cases.

What strikes me about Spiked-online's general "line" here and in other places is the very clear and consistent, but occasionally a bit head-banging, way they defend Enlightenment-based values such as individual liberty, individual responsibility, etc. I often find myself in agreement with their individual standpoints while not necessarily subscribing to the philosophy behind it. This case is a bit different. At times Spiked-online's advocacy of the autonomy and self-determination of the individual is done in a very dichotomistic, black-and-white manner. I think Brendan O'Neill's attitude to the abortion issue might be an example - even though O'Neill would find most progressives and liberals agreeing with him. A very different issue is O'Neill's provocative defence of the fur industry which is, putting it mildly, slightly less politically salonfähig. Where Spiked-online tends to quite correctly criticize views on human beings as being merely continuous with the animal kingdom as misanthropic, it tends to substitute it with positing a categorical gulf between humans and the natural world which strikes me as very poorly nuanced.

This said, Brendan O'Neill's article about the fur industry, wrong-headed as it is, is an excellent example of why he and his co-writers at Spiked-online are so much worth reading: their disdain for reigning political orthodoxies.

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