Abortion, shame and the “cult of death”: The ingrained misogyny of the UK government

Relationships and sex education expert Dr Sophie King-Hill deconstructs the extreme anti-abortion views held by some UK politicians.

A woman holding a sign that says, 'My body, my rules.'

Image credit: Olia Danilevich

MP for Somerset Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent anti-abortion rhetoric is cause for alarm. Speaking in a Westminster Hall Debate on legal rights to access abortion, Mogg’s arguments appear to be based on emotion and anecdotal perspectives rather than robust evidence. Upon deeper consideration, his rhetoric is dangerous and linked to reinforcing shame around sex, the side-lining of women’s bodies, and misogyny.

Rees-Mogg has been vocal about his anti-abortion stance for many years. His views are underpinned by his strong Catholicism. In 2017, he stated that he believes "Life is sacrosanct and begins at the point of conception".

In terms of freedom of speech and thought, as underpinned by the Bill of Rights, he is entitled to have this view. Yet as a politician, he has an obligation, given his position of power, to take part in reasoned debate. So why is it that when discussing abortion, Mogg plays on the conscience of the listener, using manipulative language to equate abortion with child murder on gargantuan scale?

Mogg’s misogyny is evident. The entire premise of his debate speech revolves around him patronising and undermining Stella Creasy, a female member of parliament who wishes to add abortion to the UK’s new Bill of Rights. His own argument hinges on emotion and “sadness,” with no steadfast evidence for the points that he is making—something that he would surely reject if a woman was leading an argument in such a way.

Rees-Mogg states that abortion is “the modern tragedy” of babies “ripped untimely from their mothers’ wombs.” This language contains violent word play and implies that it is those that are pregnant that are responsible, and that the responsibility of pregnancy and child rearing is theirs alone. He then contextualises his point with statistics; he references the 214,000 abortions performed in the UK in the last year and 10,000,000 overall since abortion become legal. To him, this “loss of life” is “the tragedy of abortion”; to those who support pro-choice, these numbers demonstrate an overwhelming need for safe abortion. If legal abortion was not available, the consequences would be immeasurable. Equating to ten million unwanted children, and the physical, emotional and physiological impacts that would follow.

Rees-Mogg is not alone in his prominent misogyny and his desire to control women’s bodies. Extreme right-wing rhetoric is becoming more prominent on social media, particularly since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Mogg may feel empowered by the recent Rowe vs Wade ruling in the USA which saw US citizens lose their right to abortion on state level.

Perhaps Mogg also feels vindicated by the decision to host the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, a country notorious for its poor treatment of minorities, especially women. Disconcertingly, FIFA appears comfortable with misogyny, despite their values stating that they stand for equality; their silence on this matter is deafening. Such misogyny is alive and well in the UK too; recent reviews into the London Fire Service and the Police force have evidenced endemic misogyny that is deeply embedded into these organisations.

Worryingly, Mogg is not the only MP with extreme and dangerous views. Abortion rights are fragile; examples of this can be seen with MPs such as Danny Kruger stating that an absolute right in relation bodily autonomy and pregnancy should not be granted, Nadine Dorries wanting to cut abortion gestation limit, and Jeremy Hunt voting to cut abortion time to 12 weeks.

It is curious that Rees-Mogg has not given rousing speeches on free school meals and accessible childcare.

What are the dangers of anti-abortion rhetoric?

Healthcare is essential for everyone: cis women and men, and people who are trans and non-binary. For those with a uterus this should unquestioningly include abortion.

Yet this isn’t the case.

The difference with abortion is the shame and skewed perspectives on morality that is heaped upon it.

In his argument, Rees-Mogg appears to be specifically focussed upon women. There is no mention of people who are trans, side-lining them with his silence. There is also no reference to the impact of abortion on men. if abortion were illegal, many men would suffer indirectly, via the increasing physical and emotional pressure on them and impacting on already serious and increasing mental health issues that they experience.

For Mogg, abortion is a moral and ethical issue, rather than being a medical procedure. This links to the philosophical discussion around when life begins, a discussion often connected to male dominated religions such as Catholicism that oppose abortion on the premise that life begins at conception. Abortion is then coupled with shame. When patriarchal legacy assumes women must be childbearing homemakers and sex outside of marriage is considered deviant, the result is a perfect storm of morals, ethics, religion, gender expectations, sex and shame that allows a platform for anti-abortion rhetoric. In this argument, women are ultimately responsible for when and how they become pregnant, and ‘mistakes’ must somehow be endured or punished.

When exactly does life begin for Mogg? He states that he doesn’t wish to “quibble.” For him, life starts at conception; a view which shifts the debate to the rights of the foetus. By dismissing the bodily autonomy of those that are pregnant, he is indirectly reinforcing feelings of shame and feeding into the subordination of women, therefore reinforcing a misogynistic perspective.

Woman in rainbow dress at a protest, holding a protest sign that says, "All healthcare is a right!"

Image credit: Katie Godowski

The “cult of death” is a delusion

Mogg refers to pro-abortion campaigners as a “cult of death” that “prefer death to life.” Again, this shapes the argument around the foetus rather than the pregnant person.

When asked about rape and incest, Mogg’s responses take a much darker tone. He falls short of stating abortion should be permissible in these circumstances and repeats that “destruction of life is wrong.” Whilst these comments relate to abortion, they have much more concerning undertones in relation to perspectives on rape, abuse and incest. By minimising these abusive behaviours, and in the case of abuse and sexual violence, eliminating human rights by withdrawing the right to abortion, serious and immeasurable lasting damage can be done. Mogg’s only allowance for abortion is in the case of an ectopic pregnancy—where “the life of the woman is threatened.” In this case, the foetus will never be viable. This dangerous minimisation of abuse and sexual violence risks backtracking much of the work that has been completed in the arena of protecting women and girls from violence.

Is it really a case of the unborn vs the living?

When Rees-Mogg’s rhetoric is explored in the wider context of his work in and outside of politics, some sobering hypocrisy emerges. He has admitted that one of his investment firms indirectly profits from pills that are used for abortion in Indonesia. Countless times, his position on welfare and children living in poverty conflicts with his proposed stance on children when talking about abortion. It is curious that he has not given rousing speeches on free school meals and accessible childcare. He has referred to the use of food banks as ‘uplifting’ and accused UNICEF of staging a ‘political stunt’ when they supported UK children living in poverty in Covid-19.

What can we do to push back against misogynistic rhetoric?

There are a number of contributing factors fuelling Mogg and the anti-abortion lobby. First is the association between sex and shame. This, coupled with expectations put on a woman, is why the morality of abortion becomes a problem. We can combat this by advocating, supporting and providing robust, informative and well-planned relationships and sex education from a young age. We can all make a conscious effort to speak out about the anti-abortion rhetoric via formal and informal routes. Keeping the dialogue open is vitally important. We have to make sure that everyone is entitled to safe, accessible and inclusive sexual healthcare.

However, one of the most important things that you can do is not judge those that choose abortion.  See it as their right over their own bodies, and support where you can.

The brutal reality of this issue is that if abortion were deemed illegal...

It would not stop.

Abortion would continue.

Safe abortion would not.