By Barbara Maloney McAdorey
A recent article, entitled “Abortion Wars,” by Leonard Stern, which appeared in The Citizen’s Weekly, a Sunday supplement in The Ottawa Citizen, gave a fair and honest account of the abortion situation in Canada, something not often seen in mainstream media. As reported in the June issue of The Interim, at an outdoor Mass in Vanier, Ottawa’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Gervais praised the article for its “ample treatment of the pro-life position.” But he added that the article “ends on such a negative note, recognizing the right of a parent to kill a child in the womb.” He was referring to the fact that Dr. Denes, a psychology professor and mother of two, became pregnant at 37 and had an abortion.
The fact that Dr. Denes had the abortion is not a positive thing, and maybe that is what the Archbishop meant by a “negative note.” But I found there was a note of optimism in the last paragraph. The paragraph in question has Dr. Denes recalling the day of the abortion: “I have two young sons, whose small faces are the most moving arguments I have against going through with this.” Yet she went ahead and had the abortion and continued to defend abortion rights afterwards. Mr. Stern concludes the article by saying, “But she also came to recognize the evasions – multifaceted, clever and shameful – that this commitment requires of us.”
It is in this last statement where I see a glimmer of hope. I see it as alluding to a fundamental, but often unrecognized, truth about abortion: that what one thinks and believes about the issue on one level, may greatly conflict with one’s values on another level, and that one must go through psychological gyrations in order to resolve this contradiction. That Dr. Denes recognized this, as pointed out in Mr. Stern’s last sentence, offers hope. That is, even as she defends the right to abortion, Dr. Denes realizes she is avoiding something and admits it is shameful.
She sees the two small faces of her sons who were once fetuses in her womb. So how can she abort this fetus? She seems to recognize the contradiction. On the one hand, she wants to believe that abortion is a woman’s right. On the other hand, she knows an abortion will prevent her from seeing that third small face. This recognition of her “multifaceted, clever and shameful” evasions are the necessary first step in a change of attitude – a glimmer of hope that one day she will reconcile her conflict by seeing abortion for what it really is. Not a sufficient step, but a necessary one.
Unlike Dr. Denes, many abortion supporters may not even be aware of the inherent contradictions in the pro-choice point of view. On the one hand, the abortion supporter wants to believe in freedom for women and a woman’s right to control what happens to her body or her career or her family situation. Controlling fertility epitomizes this freedom. The same abortion supporter will fight for children’s rights and advocate stiffer penalties for child abusers.
But how is this possible? How can someone support ending the life of one child, and defending the life of another, when the only difference between the two is whether the child is born or not? Even age is not the deciding factor. Medical staff do all they can to help premature babies to survive. Advances in technology even allow surgery to be performed on preborn babies.
But abortion is legal until the moment before a full-term birth. Even if the fetus is not full-term, it is only a matter of time before it will be, just as after birth, it is only a matter of time before the child will walk and talk and reach puberty. How can one individual hold two such conflicting values at one time?
I believe psychology, especially the theories of cognitive dissonance and defense mechanisms, can give us some answers.
In 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the situation in which a person is faced with information that contradicts what that person thinks and believes. Festinger hypothesized that this situation produces tension and that people are motivated to reduce or avoid it. In other words, people try to regain consistency in their beliefs.
Festinger used the example of smoking to illustrate his point. According to J.E. Alcock, D.W. Carment, and S.W. Sadava, in their book, “A Textbook of Social Psychology,” the smoker is faced with two contradictory cognitions: “I smoke” and “Smoking causes cancer.” The person is now in a state of cognitive dissonance. To reduce the accompanying discomfort, he has a number of options: he can choose to believe that the dissonant cognition (in this case, smoking causes cancer) is false; he can bolster his case for smoking by adding a new consonant cognition such as the fact that smoking reduces stress or helps him avoid overeating; he can ignore the conflicting information, considering it irrelevant to his own situation (that is, the health risks do not actually apply to him); or he can change his behaviour to make it consistent with the belief that smoking causes cancer, and quit smoking. However, changing our behaviour and belief systems when faced with contradictory ideas is not an easy thing to do. As April and Vincent O’Connell point out in their book,Choice and Change: The Psychology of Holistic Growth, Adjustment, and Creativity, “We humans are expert at preserving our prejudices, our illusions, and our ideologies in the face of conflicting facts.”
The abortion supporter thinks and believes that abortion is a woman’s right, that it is very progressive to hold such a view, and that it shows they are free and liberal thinkers. But they don’t believe that killing children is right. Faced with the view that the fetus is a living, breathing child would cause a high level of cognitive dissonance. In order to avoid this discomfort, they have a choice. They can recognize their “clever and shameful” evasions and decide to change their belief about abortion, concluding that it must, therefore, be wrong. Or they can use defense mechanisms such as denial and rationalization, much as the smoker does, to reduce the discomfort and anxiety associated with cognitive dissonance. Or they can avoid the issue altogether.
In the case of denial, a person refuses to believe that something is so (for example, that smoking causes cancer). Likewise, the abortion supporter will deny that the fetus is a human being or a person deserving of rights. While one could argue about the definitions of “human being” and “person,” one cannot argue about the term “human life.” But abortion supporters will deny even this term, and instead use terms like “blob of tissue.” Or they may deny that the fetus feels pain, when studies have shown that after a certain period of gestation, the fetus does in fact feel pain. Denying the humanity of the fetus allows the person to retain their view that abortion is a woman’s right, while maintaining the view that children who have been born need to be protected. Dehumanization is an effective technique in reducing the anxiety associated with oppression of distinct groups. The Nazis used it effectively when comparing Jews to rats, and patriarchal societies have used it effectively when comparing women to property.
In the case of rationalization, a person finds convincing reasons to justify her behaviour, covering up the true underlying reason which may not be acceptable. The smoker rationalizes her smoking by saying it calms her down and prevents her from overeating, covering up the real reason which is that it would be too difficult to quit. In the case of abortion, one might rationalize that aborting a fetus with Down syndrome is preventing a child from living a miserable life, when the real reason may be that one does not want to raise a supposedly less than perfect child. They may be worried that their own life may in fact be miserable. At the same time, they would not be likely to advocate killing a baby who was diagnosed with this syndrome after the baby was born.
The other option is to avoid the issue altogether, much as the smoker ignores health warnings about cigarettes, choosing to believe that such warnings do not actually apply to him. Those who are not directly affected by abortion may not give it much thought, preferring not to get involved in the debate. There is a certain level of comfort in remaining neutral on such a controversial issue – to assume abortion is someone else’s problem. For if I believe it is my problem too, then I must take a side and defend that side and face the wrath of the opponent, or face going to jail if I protest too close to an abortion clinic. For those who take the pro-choice position, anything that would contradict their pro-choice cognitions will be avoided, such as exposure to pictures of aborted fetuses. Again, the motivation is to reduce cognitive dissonance that would result in high levels of discomfort.
We are free to make any of these choices. But if we are so good at “preserving our prejudices, our illusions, and our ideologies in the face of conflicting facts,” what chance is there for our society to come to terms with the conflict abortion places on us and the psychological adjustment it demands of us? What are the chances we will let down our defenses, admit we may have been wrong about abortion, and come to the painful realization of what abortion really is? We increase our chances if we at least recognize this conflict exists. For until we recognize it, there is no hope of resolving it.
Dr. Denes recognizes it. She is still committed to abortion rights, but is conscious of the fact that such a commitment requires her to “cleverly and shamefully” evade the issue. She is no longer unconscious of this evasion, as so many abortion supporters are. And becoming aware is the first step to resolution. And that is why I see a glimmer of hope in the last paragraph of Leonard Stern’s article.