Faced with the Government’s apparent desire to remove the advisory role of charities like Marie Stopes to women facing decisions about having an abortion, and to hand that role to organisations that may include Christian groups with an explicitly anti-abortion agenda, there is a part of this man that wants to remain silent. After all, I am a man; this is a society in which the key social and political and especially economic decisions are almost entirely made by men; and the issue is one of the extent to which women should control their own bodies. And although the public figurehead of the current campaign is a woman, Nadine Dorries, there’s little doubt that the agenda is being manipulated by political and religious groups run entirely by and for men, who regard a good woman as a subordinate woman. (And let’s not forget that the Roman Catholic church, the most vocal opponents of a woman’s right to choose, are perhaps the most systemic child abusers in history. In my view it’s impossible to dismiss the link).
Indeed, one useful approach to understanding what is happening now is to ask why these men, and the God they have created in their own image, are, for all their power and pomp, so obviously scared of women’s bodies. And that’s before we get on to the self-loathing of women like Dorries – in some cases apparently achieving and empowered women – who are apparently willing to act as their ideological pimps.
But at one level this is not just about men and women – it is about one part of society that has enjoyed wealth and privilege claiming the right to exercise control over the lives and bodies of those who have, by and large, been excluded from the autonomy that wealth and privilege bring. Viewed in those terms, it’s absolutely central to the Coalition’s agenda, and offers a close fit to almost every aspect of its social policy. And of course it is a well-documented fact that the impact of the Coalition’s policies falls disproprtionately on women, across the widest range of issues – from public sector job cuts, to cuts in benefits, to social security policy, to education policy (the astonishing spectacle of the Minister for Universities claiming that tuition fees favoured women because they earn less and are therefore less likely to have to pay them back). Whatever the rhetoric, the effects are clear – if you were born with a vagina the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats treat you as a second-class citizen, unless you have wealth – the one thing that in their view trumps your chromosones. The current debate about abortion cannot be separated from that mainstream, and must be seen in that context.
Moreover, this is an example of the way in which evangelical Christianity has become embedded in the Conservative Party. Before the 2010 election, the Financial Times published an important piece that demonstrated how deeply evangelical Christianity has become ingrained in that Party. In the context of an election where the Tories failed to gain a majority, well-funded campaigns on behalf of Christian candidates in marginal seats made a real difference. I’d say that it’s difficult to see the abortion proposals as anything other than payback time).
And this is a Government in which someone like Philippa Stroud, who belongs to a church that believes that women must obey their husbands and that gay people can be “cured” by prayer, can fail to be elected to Parliament and yet find herself at the heart of government, as a special adviser in the ideological war-room in the Department of Work and Pensions.
Moreover, it’s a symptom of something that must concern us all, male or female – the flight from rationality that’s evident in economic and social policy. From the evidential base that suggests that Osborneomics will achieve precisely the object of its stated aims (but while enriching Cameron and Osborne’s class in the process), to the Cameron’s mendacious rhetoric about how health and safety is undermining the fabric of society, there is a refusal to acknowledge reality – an abandonment of the empirical – in favour of an ideological narrative, supported by the mythologies expounded in the tabloid press – of workshy benefit scroungers, evil Brussels bureaucrats, mass immigration and political correctness gone mad. There is a hatred of complexity and a fear of diversity. Dorries is famously an advocate of teaching “abstinence” in sex education – despite the overwhelming evidence that the best way of reducing unwanted teenage pregnancy is full, early sex education for both boys and girls.
In the case of the abortion debate it’s manifesting itself in the disgraceful lie that those charities involved in offering advice to women who are contemplating abortion have a vested financial interest in increasing the number of abortions, while opening the path for religious organisations who have a clear agenda of demonising abortion to act as counsellors. Quite why the servants of an omnipotent God should feel the need to resort to such dishonesty is one of those mysteries that those of us who profess atheism manage to avoid, but it’s a question worth asking. Perhaps to be a good evangelical Christian you have to hate reason and truth as much as you hate women; I wouldn’t know.
But if you believe that reason and evidence have a role in how we run our society, these questions have to be asked and the lies have to be exposed. And that’s one reason why it’s as important for men to oppose Dorries as it is for women. It’s not – and is never – for me as a man to tell women how they should relate to their own bodies. But it is essential for me as a man who believes that society cannot be run according to lies and superstition and prejudice, and who is disgusted at the way this Coalition demonises and damages those it perceives as weak, to stand and support the right of women to choose. We are, as the saying goes, all in this together.