Pro-Life: Expressing the Highest Ideals of the Left


Courtesy of Life Matters Journal. The first installment of this essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 5 Issue 8 — October 2017.


Thanks to Val for a lot of research, and for the good feedback on the writing.

1. What Happened to Liberals’ Hearts?

“How had I agreed to make this hideous act the centerpiece of my feminism?,” Frederica Mathewes-Green asked in 2016. Just a little later that year, pro-choice advocate Camille Paglia wrote, “Progressives need to do some soul-searching. . . . A liberal credo that is variously anti-war, anti-fur, vegan, and committed to environmental protection of endangered species . . . should not be so stridently withholding its imagination and compassion from the unborn.” Conservatives have sometimes derided the left as “bleeding-heart liberals,” but what happened to liberals’ hearts regarding the unborn?

Explaining the shifting positions of liberals on abortion seems to be a tale of oppression, altruism, and – in the case of many liberal leaders – opportunism.

The oppression I refer to is the horrific oppression of women for millennia, which naturally led to a backlash that was overdue and highly justifiable for the most part, but that in at least one important way—attitudes toward abortion—went out of control. Altruism, or compassion, is a character trait that is stronger in some people than in others; and even between people of equal compassion, some have more tendency than others to try to translate that compassion into governmental responsibility. That tendency leads people to gravitate toward liberal politics. Altruism can be directed both toward pregnant women and their unborn children, but liberals tend to direct it disproportionately toward pregnant women for reasons I will explain below. And opportunism? The opportunism of some pro-choice politicians and other leaders is related primarily to the out-of-control aspect of the backlash and secondarily to money.

Jon Haidt, who researches in moral psychology, likes to list six possible dichotomies that various thinkers have argued about in trying to ground a secular morality. He says that liberals try to ground right and wrong overwhelmingly on the foundation of care/harm, whereas conservatives appeal also to the foundation of liberty/oppression and four other foundations. Whether or not liberals are naturally endowed with any more compassion than conservatives, I think they are much more inclined to try to translate their compassion into governmental responsibility.

In the history of liberal politics, the forces of oppression, altruism, and opportunism played themselves out against the backdrop of what I see as the main psychological source of the divide between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. That sharp divide seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn. Are the unborn full-fledged members of our human family, or are they something much less significant? A greater liberal emphasis on caring for the underdog would seem clearly to lead to a pro-life position if liberals see the unborn as full-fledged members of our human family. If, however, they see them as something much less, then understandably their caring would focus instead on pregnant women, they would see no need to pay any regard to the unborn, and they would become pro-choice. I personally am strongly pro-life, but if I were to perceive the unborn as insignificant, I would find it abhorrent to try to restrict what a woman can do with her body.

“The sharp divide seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn” is my own conclusion based on countless discussions about abortion with a range of people. And following from that conclusion, I naturally think that in general, the two-thirds (or so) of rank-and-file Democrats who identify as pro-choice must think of the unborn as something fairly insignificant.

When I say that the sharp divide “seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn,” some may ask, what about bodily-rights arguments, which concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is indeed fully human, yet claim a right to kill it nonetheless? But I think that the understanding that the preborn is a full-fledged member of our human family is, in fact, virtually sufficient to entail a pro-life position. Viewing the ranks of pro-choice apologists, I get the impression almost always that those who concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is truly a human being, yet claim a right to kill, make that concession only for the sake of argument. Very few of them – perhaps only Camille Paglia, mentioned above, and Naomi Wolf – have made that concession in their hearts. I think that almost anyone who really sees the unborn as our little sisters and brothers, will quickly dig a little deeper and discover the weaknesses in bodily-rights arguments.

Charles Camosy, relying significantly on the writings of Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life of America, relates an historical account[1] that I would summarize as follows:

As of the 1968 general elections, neither major party could be called pro-life or pro-choice. Events at the 1968 Democratic Convention led to activist groups of different kinds, in the aftermath of that convention, gaining more control than they had had before over party policies; and pro-choice activists succeeded in initiating their party’s tilt toward the pro-choice position.

This created an irresistible opportunity for the Republican Party to appeal to pro-lifers (just as if the Republican Party had been the first to tilt either way, it would have created an irresistible opportunity for the Democratic Party to appeal to the voters opposite to the tilt). And things have continued to polarize ever since. For his 1972 re-election, Republican President Richard Nixon used pro-life sentiment to successfully begin attracting Catholics away from the Democratic Party.

“In 1976,” according to Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, “the pro-life movement was still overwhelmingly Catholic and mostly politically liberal . . . but by 1980, there was a new group of pro-life activists: evangelical Protestants [overwhelmingly Republican].” But as we will see, the biggest spike in liberal conversions from pro-life to pro-choice – which is our focus in pondering what happened to liberals’ hearts – seems already to have occurred in the 1968-1972 period.

Ideologically, the pro-choice movement might have found more affinity with the Republican Party than with the Democratic. A key factor, possibly the key factor, in the way things fell out seems to have been that the pro-choice activists, as activists with a new party policy to propose, simply found the Democratic power structure easier to break into. I won’t insist on this view, but it’s consistent with the contributions of Democrats to the pro-life movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which indicate that as of 1972 the Democratic Party had not long been pro-choice in ideological terms.

In fact the pro-life movement that opposed the late-1960s calls for abortion rights (calls that foreshadowed Roe v. Wade) was led importantly by stalwarts of the civil-rights movement and of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and by liberal politicians. Jesse Jackson was both a civil-rights leader and a politician, and was at first vehemently pro-life. The priests Daniel Berrigan and John Neuhaus were co-founders of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam; both were pro-life, and Neuhaus was the keynote speaker at the first pro-life rally to be held on the National Mall. Edward Kennedy wrote an open letter in 1971 opposing abortion on demand. Williams finds even more significant the fact that the pro-life movement used the same ideological framework and language of human rights as those earlier movements.

As Democratic Party policies shifted in favor of abortion rights, liberal politicians shifted with them. Nat Hentoff wrote of Jesse Jackson: “But as Jesse Jackson decided to run for president in 1984, his fiery pro-life rhetoric suddenly subsided.” Hentoff didn’t expressly accuse Jackson of hypocrisy, but he concluded his article as follows:

I then asked Jackson about another form of execution. I told him that in speeches I often quote what he wrote as a pro-lifer. He looked uncomfortable. I asked him if he still believed what he said then. “I’ll get back to you on that,” he said. He hasn’t yet.

The opinion of Nat Hentoff, alone, is not enough to convince me that any individual politician is a hypocrite. We can’t know, simply through the images we find in the media, what is in any one person’s heart. But I can see how politics would have a special appeal for those whose ambition overrides their integrity, so I feel sure that in the cases of many politicians, if not in Jackson’s case individually, the conversions to a pro-choice position of Democratic leaders must have been opportunistic. Outside of elected office, also, any movement that offers a chance to become a hero to a large, vocal group or to cash in financially is sure to attract some who have such banal motivations (this would not exclude the pro-life side). The appeal of pro-choice feminists as a huge and motivated voting bloc or audience would have been hard to resist.

While opportunism might explain the shifting positions of Democratic leaders, however, rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party would not have felt the same compulsions of allegiance that politicians did, and it seems that many of the rank and file also must have undergone a conversion to pro-choice. The Washington Post of Aug. 25, 1972, reported that when Gallup asked whether “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician,” 59% of Democrats agreed (among Republicans agreement was at 68%), and that “support for legal abortion ha[d] increased sharply” since the previous survey five months earlier. The report did not explicitly say that Democratic (liberal) support had increased since the previous survey, and I could not find earlier surveys asking exactly the same question or giving a breakdown by party. A Gallup poll in November 1969, however, had found only 40 per cent of all Americans in favor of a law “which would permit a woman to go to a doctor and end a pregnancy at any time during the first three months.” Such a huge number of pro-choice converts must have included many who would call themselves liberal.

Let’s try to find the inner reasons why people might have been converting to pro-choice during the years 1968–1972. First, few people would have been converting due to bodily-autonomy arguments. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” was not published until 1971, and it takes time for academic thinking to trickle down and affect popular opinion. I believe that pro-choice arguments leading up to Roe v. Wade were largely arguments about women’s attaining career equality with men; about controlling population growth; about the fear that if a woman does not have access to a safe abortion she will seek out an unsafe one (the “back-alley abortion” argument); and, for seven Supreme Court justices, about a rarefied argument concerning privacy under the Constitution. Moreover, some people may have come to take the abortion-rights movement more seriously as women took over the leadership that had previously been held by men.

But few people would say that anyone should have the right to kill a full-fledged member of our human family for a job, or to control population, or so that killings of such persons can be carried out in safety, or to protect the privacy of the killer, or because of who recommends that right. Thus the above arguments would not fully explain how Mathewes-Green’s “hideous act” became a cornerstone of liberal politics. I wrote before, “if liberals . . . see [the unborn] as something much less [than full-fledged members of our human family], then understandably their caring would focus instead on pregnant women, they would see no need to pay any regard to the unborn, and they would become pro-choice.” For this reason, I think that many liberals around the 1968–1972 period must have actually found in themselves different intuitive perceptions of the unborn than they had held before.

Would that have been psychologically possible? Well, I get the impression that with people who have not thought much, in an individual capacity, about the nature of the unborn, their perceptions are extremely malleable. After all, except for a few surgeons, no one has ever seen an in utero fetus with their own eyes, and even if we saw an early fetus, that would not help us much to assess its moral value without some deep thinking. So if those who have not thought much about the topic are told repeatedly that the unborn has a soul, they will believe it has a soul. If told in secular terms that it is “a distinct, living and whole human being,” they will believe that. If told it is just tissue, they will believe that. I think that the last of those is what happened to liberals’ hearts – or perhaps not exactly to their hearts but to something in their minds closely related to their hearts.

The above arguments for abortion rights gave people incentives to find in themselves different perceptions of the unborn that led in the direction of dismissiveness. These arguments also gave incentives for the crystallization of a dismissive perception of the unborn where there had been no clear perception before. I think that psychologically such changes would in fact have been possible given two factors that were then present: first, the fact that many people were just beginning to think about the matter for the first time; and second, what seems to have been a concerted effort at dehumanization by pro-choice feminists. People’s still-formative perceptions were influenced in the direction of dismissing the unborn.

Pro-choice advocate Naomi Wolf has explained that “Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the foetus isn’t a person. . . . An account of a pre-Roe underground abortion service inadvertently sheds light on this: staffers referred to the foetus – well into the fourth month – as ‘material’ . . .”

That would be consistent with the picture that we get from Daniel Williams. Williams relates that in 1967 the National Organization for Women decided to demand women’s full control over their bodies, and that their adherents undertook to justify that control by claiming that the unborn were less than human. (I assume that they chose that course because they then had no other means of justification; Thomson-style arguments that claim to establish such a right to bodily control even if the unborn are fully human were not yet available to them.) Their adherents proceeded to develop what Wolf calls “a lexicon of dehumanization.”

I don’t think that a spike in conversions to pro-choice between 1969 and 1972 following upon an apparent intensification of the push for dehumanization in 1967 was just a coincidence.

In a 1980 article in The Progressive, “Abortion: The Left Has Betrayed the Sanctity of Life,” Mary Meehan wrote:

…it is out of character for the Left to neglect the weak and helpless.

The traditional mark of the Left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor. The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even more in need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient… The basic instinct of the Left is to aid those who cannot aid themselves – and that instinct is absolutely sound.

As we saw earlier, liberals are, if not the voters who care most, then those who try hardest to translate their caring into governmental responsibility. So Meehan is of course right that liberals should be pro-life – if the unborn are perceived as full-fledged members of our human family. If they are perceived as something much less, the contention would not be true. But I have discussed elsewhere why I am confident that the former perception will prevail.

2. The Highest Ideals of the Left

I would call myself a member of the left, if we have to use such simple concepts. I volunteered with the Delta Ministry briefly in Mississippi in the summer of 1965. I was evicted by police from a university building in 1969 in an anti-Vietnam War protest led by Students for a Democratic Society. A few days later I marched to free Huey Newton, defense minister of the Black Panther Party (though I soon came to realize I had little knowledge of whether he was innocent of the charges). I support universal health care, as long as it is real health care and not abortion or other forms of killing. I think that eventually most industry should be owned by cooperatives or by governments.

To explain my view on abortion in relation to the ideals of the left, let me go back to that 1969 Vietnam protest, with the understanding that I don’t want to start an argument about that war. I have much humility about my understanding of history and geopolitics. I have great respect for American Vietnam veterans. All that matters here is what my perception of the war was at the time I protested it. What motivated me to join that action in 1969 and other anti-war events was a sense of outrage at what I perceived as a devastatingly violent onslaught being perpetrated by the strong against the weak, in another part of the world. Entirely innocent and entirely defenseless sisters and brothers of mine in Vietnam seemed to account for untold numbers of the slaughtered, while those who seemed to me the worst aggressors operated with complete impunity.

Abortion, if we don’t euphemize, is a devastatingly violent onslaught by the strong and relatively strong against the very weakest and most innocent of our sisters and brothers, all over the world. Legal abortion is not the moral equivalent of imperialistic aggression (if the Vietnam war really was imperialistic aggression, as I saw it then), but it is by definition slaughter of the innocent and defenseless with impunity, and the numbers of victims are on a scale that cannot be compared with the relatively modest numbers of victims in mere military wars. Abortion is one more human manifestation of might makes right, and it awakens in me much of the same sense of injustice and outrage as did Vietnam. Not only do present laws (which call for a unilateral decision) mandate might makes right, natural circumstances are also conducive to might makes right, because a woman and a doctor alone have the physical capacity to carry out the abortion. I think that if the balance of might were different and therefore state power were required to carry out the death sentence, the unborn would get a much more equitable hearing (a day in court), and therefore many outcomes would be different. The ease of abortion obviates the deeper and more soul-searching assessment of the justice of the situation that would occur if the intended target were someone who could resist. Thus those already born are flatly taking advantage of the helplessness of those not yet born.

I think that the impulse to defend the weak is one of the highest human impulses. Defense of the weak is normally undertaken without thought of personal gain and hence with minimal thought of self. It is altruistic. And as a species, we have gradually been learning that happiness for an individual involves identification with something greater than oneself. As the abstract of a 2008 psychology study said,

. . . we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.

Atheism advocate and neuroscientist Sam Harris recommends and teaches meditation. Meditation is a technique other than altruistic conduct through which one can lose one’s sense of self. Harris says that through meditative exercises, “[Certain] people have lost their feeling of self, to a great degree, and with that loss [have] come incredibly positive experiences.” He suggests that there is “a connection between self-transcendence and living ethically,” because self-transcendent experiences can involve “forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical. . . a phrase like ‘boundless love” does not seem overblown.”[2] (See also “Sonder: The Key to Peace?” The word “sonder” has been coined for a state of mind out of which consistent affirmation of life in all one’s actions must inevitably flow.)

The loss of the sense of self, however it is achieved, will have some of the same effect for ethical living that Harris claims for meditation.

Harris and most other scientists are confident that such mental states must have an adequate neurological explanation and do not require the religious explanations formerly ascribed to them. Whatever explanation for them may eventually be found, I think of states of transcendence, self-sacrifice and universal love as the highest good that human beings can aspire to. And I think that whatever may be the failings of liberal politics, the liberal principle of defending the weak is the one principle, not only on the left, but anywhere on the political spectrum, that is most conducive to going beyond our normal pettiness and our ordinary boundaries.

Some voices will say that while the unborn are indeed weak and defenseless, they are not human beings, or not persons, and are not deserving of our compassion. But I think those voices have been sufficiently dealt with elsewhere. However great the tragedy of the abortion issue, it is a transformative opportunity for society.

We need to be clear: The quality of a civilization can be measured by the respect it has for its weakest members. (Jerome Lejeune, “the father of modern genetics”)


[1] Charles C. Camosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), hardcover, pp. 22-24.

[2] Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), p. 14.


You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Shame and Shaming, Stigma and Stigmatizing

Shame: Shame is the distressing sense of having done wrong or of having an intent to do wrong. The capacity for feeling shame is inseparable from our capacity to distinguish right from wrong. If we had no capacity for shame, no conscience, we would either not know right from wrong, or would not care about the difference. Shame is a specific kind of emotional pain. It is our internal mechanism for correcting our behavior. The value of physical pain, as an alarm system, is clear, and the capacity for shame is fundamentally as salutary as a capacity for physical pain.

But sometimes we have done something wrong and fail to consciously feel shame as we should. This is where shaming can be helpful.

Before we touch on shaming, though, let’s look at abortion scenarios. Should a woman who aborts, and those who help her abort, always feel shame? It’s clearly not always. In an ectopic pregnancy the unborn cannot realistically be saved regardless of what the woman might do. Different pro-lifers would grant that in different other medical situations as well, abortion is morally justified or even morally the best course. And we can even imagine situations without unusual medical risk where the plight of a woman is so pathetic – she is fifteen, uneducated, isolated, mentally tortured by relatives – that if she is driven to abort or for that matter to commit infanticide, that would simply be a tale of her suffering, and not an occasion for her repentance, any more than if she had been physically tortured or tied down to the operating table. It is simply in the nature of extremes that they entail exceptions to normal moral standards.

If it is even the case that another young woman has been totally brainwashed by her culture to think of the unborn as insignificant and think of abortion as heroic, and if that brainwashing is really total, then shame would not be psychologically natural till she begins to awaken from the spell.

But now let’s talk about relativities. If the woman’s situation were slightly less pathetic than that of the above isolated fifteen-year-old – if the woman were slightly less distraught, or slightly less brainwashed – and she aborted, then a slight degree of shame would be psychologically natural. And if the woman’s situation were even a bit less pathetic than that, then even a bit more shame would be in the natural order . . . there will be a gradation. The more the selfishness of any action, the more shame one should feel.

Shaming: Shaming means to intentionally cause another person to feel shame. But it is possible to cause another person to feel shame at times when it is not appropriate for the person to feel that way, which is obviously a negative thing, as well as to cause them to feel shame at times when it is appropriate for them to feel that way. And if we cause them to feel shame at times when it is appropriate for them to feel that way, is that always a positive thing?

If another person can awaken in me something that is salutary for me, it would seem to be that person’s moral duty to do so. But let’s see what happens when we try to make someone feel an appropriate kind of shame. That is, they have done something that we consider genuinely wrong, and we try to awaken in them the kind of shame that would ideally have awakened in them automatically – shame for their genuinely wrong action. There are different scenarios that are possible:

1. We may be mistaken about right and wrong. The person may have done nothing wrong. Yet because of the psychological phenomenon of suggestibility, it is possible that we may succeed in making them feel ashamed, even when they should not feel ashamed. This would be a near-disaster. This does not mean that we should never try to awaken shame in anyone, but it tells us that the enterprise is tricky and precarious, and should always make us think twice.

2. Because of the psychological phenomenon of defensiveness, it is hugely possible that even when someone should feel ashamed of something, trying to shame them will backfire. Again, it is a tricky situation.

3. Nevertheless, I well remember a couple of times in my life when I received a scolding from some person I respected, and I was compelled to admit to myself wrongdoing that I had not been able to admit to myself without that intervention. I fully underwent “the distressing sense of having done wrong,” I emerged from it a better person, and any possibility was removed of repeating the same mistake. It was an unqualified win. (Although someone with very fragile self-esteem might undergo the distress without ever emerging.)

In the abortion context, if someone has been involved in one and there is little chance they will repeat it, they might nevertheless stand to gain in terms of personal growth by feeling the shame that is appropriate for them. But considering that the personal growth of that one person is the only possible benefit in that situation and considering the likelihood that a shaming attempt will backfire and contribute to negative stereotypes of pro-lifers, the attempt should rarely be made. If, on the other hand, the person is still contemplating their first abortion or is indeed at risk of repeating, we can never forget that awakening shame in the person, if done just right, might save a life, perhaps multiple lives, and therefore it has to be considered as one possible tool.

In a thoughtful blog post, Josh Brahm expressed the view that shaming has a definite place. There is a right kind of shaming about abortion. But when we talk about that right kind of shaming, he suggested, it would be better not to say “shaming”.

I think it’s true that the word has come to have a connotation of an uncharitable, self-righteousness kind of shaming. Perhaps we could instead say “conscience-awakening.”

And for shaming to work out right, Brahm said, it should, with rare exceptions, be attempted only by a friend. I would broaden that suggestion a very little. I think such “conscience-awakening” can be done by anyone who can find a receptive ear in an abortion-minded woman. That “anyone” would indeed normally be a friend. But an abortion-minded woman who had less false pride than most of us have, might accept a loving kind of shaming coming from a sidewalk counselor. I would expect such cases to be exceptional.

There are moral relativists of the half-baked kind, and others who find it convenient, who try to shame shaming. Shaming is not wrong, it can be very right, but it is tricky. (For myself, considering all the risks involved, I have never been in a position where I felt that I should try shaming anyone personally in relation to an abortion. On occasion pro-choicers have told me about abortions they have been personally involved in, but when they do, I don’t weigh in with any moral opinion of mine unless the abortion situation eventually gets framed in a more abstract and impersonal way.)

Those who try to shame shaming, by the way, sometimes go so far as to try to cast the expression of purely scientific facts about the destruction caused by abortion as an unacceptable form of shaming. It may be that the knowledge of such facts will awaken shame in some people, but even if such shame were not a good thing, the whole issue could hardly be discussed responsibly without knowledge of the scientific facts.

Stigma: Who or what can carry a stigma (a mark of disgrace)? People can carry stigmas, but unless some people carry a hereditary stigma under the belief system of some culture, people carry stigmas because they as individuals have performed some particular action. So it is the action, more fundamentally than the person, that carries the stigma. If any action carries a stigma in a particular society, that simply means that that action has a bad reputation in that society.

And basically it is a good thing, in any society, for bad actions to have a bad reputation. If a society has any sense of right and wrong, then the actions it considers wrong are automatically and unavoidably stigmatized. For there to be no stigmas in a society would mean that the society does not have any standards of right and wrong at all. Just as an individual cannot have a sense of right and wrong without also having a sense of shame, a society cannot have a sense of right and wrong without also applying stigmas.

Finally, an action that carries a stigma is an action of which one ought to be ashamed. So any wrong action entails both stigma and shame: the stigma is society framing the action as wrong, and shame is the internal response of anyone who has performed the action (if they have a functioning conscience).

Stigmatizing: To stigmatize is to apply a stigma to an action or to the person who performs the action. Bad actions should have bad reputations, and in order for a bad action to have a bad reputation, society has to assign it that bad reputation. Stigmatizing is nothing more than that. Millennia ago, societies stigmatized stealing. It was a very necessary thing to do.

In English usage, however, “stigmatizing,” like “shaming,” has come to have generally a bad connotation. Some academic study of destructive social rejection and discrimination seems to have exacerbated things by redefining “stigma” and “stigmatize” to necessarily include such destructiveness. According to a summary of Erving Goffman’s analysis,

The stigmatized are ostracized, devalued, rejected, scorned and shunned. They experience discrimination and prejudice in the realms of employment and housing. . . . negative physical and mental health outcomes. . . . often experience psychological distress and many view themselves contemptuously.

Such destructive social rejection certainly deserves to be studied. But the fact that Dr. Goffman studied such things does not mean that his definition of “stigmatize,” which seems to automatically include such things, is necessarily the most correct definition. I think we would be within our rights to define the word in a more neutral way – “to assign a bad reputation to a kind of action that may well deserve a bad reputation.”


In the final analysis, though, semantic questions are not our main concern. The basic issue for us is whether we want to state in no uncertain terms what most of us feel, that abortion is very wrong, and when we want to state it. The difficulty in answering that question is that even more than in the case of other wrongdoings, compulsion will always be of limited effect in reducing abortions. Even once we have laws against abortion, enforcement will always be difficult, and thus the persuasion of abortion-minded women on a personal level will always be very important. And how best to persuade them? A quip that made the headlines a while back comes to mind: “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers,” [General Mattis] told Mr. Trump during their meeting in November . . . “and I do better with that than I do with torture.”

I think we need to be a tough cop on the level of the abortion issue, and state unequivocally that abortion is evil. But we should be a soft cop on the level of the individual case, the case of each abortion-minded woman. I don’t say that we should literally use beer or cigarettes, but I do say, heeding the counsel of such diverse personalities as Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa and Abby Johnson, that what we need is love.

As mentioned, the words we use for our methods are not the most important thing. We can say “conscience-awakening” instead of “shaming.” We can say “Let’s raise consciousness about abortion” instead of “Let’s stigmatize abortion.” But presently a certain vocal faction of the pro-choice side is going all out to normalize abortion. We should not let that happen. We should make sure that every woman who considers abortion will at least hear emphatic voices in the culture and in the media saying “Abortion is not okay.”

© 2017


You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Can a Pro-Lifer Be Both Open-Minded and Confident?

Can a pro-lifer be both open-minded and confident?

If only because it’s hard to prove a negative, one can never be completely confident that there is not some evidence out there somewhere that would lead one to become pro-choice.

And the less familiar a pro-lifer is with the literature on the abortion issue — Boonin, Beckwith, Kaczor, etc. — the less reason that person would have to be confident in that way. A person who has read everything and has ended up with strong pro-life convictions, may perhaps feel that it is only in theory that he might encounter a new pro-choice argument that he will not be able to defeat, or some new scientific or statistical evidence that might change everything for him. But we can safely guess that most pro-lifers have never read a book on the subject. How can someone who has never read Boonin feel confident that nothing he might read in Boonin, if he reads open-mindedly, might overturn his pro-life views?

So I think that the only way a pro-lifer can be both open-minded and confident is if he has a plan B for how he will operate if the evidence leads him to be pro-choice.

By such a plan B, I don’t necessarily mean a rehearsed speech that he will use to explain to his friends how he had made a mistake. I just mean that he must have confidence that life will still be worth living even if he changes his most cherished opinions. And in fact life should still be worth living if not even more worth living than it was before, because presumably he will change from an old opinion only to a new opinion that carries more truth.

In other words, a pro-lifer can be open-minded and confident if he is confident in always progressing toward more and more truth, but not if he is confident in remaining always pro-life.

I think it is extremely unlikely that the evidence will ever lead me to become pro-choice, by the way. My point is just that being really open-minded can only mean being ready to change any opinion at all.

© 2016


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Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

The Psychological Morass of the Abortion Issue


This essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 4 Issue 3 — February 2016.


morass: 2. a complicated or confused situation


Think of all the array of views related to abortion that you have ever encountered. It’s a lot, isn’t it? And now let’s try to imagine all the array of contradictory views related to abortion as they have inhabited all the minds of all people through all of history. That array must be staggering. How could such a plethora of mutually exclusive ideas have originated? I think it is largely explained by the psychological morass on moral issues in general, and this issue in particular, that the human race somehow goes on living with. Recognizing and trying to escape this psychological morass can allow us to find the truth about the morality of abortion.



In making this assertion, I am assuming that there are indeed moral truths to be found about abortion and other moral questions. Certain answers to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong, just or unjust, can be identified as truer or better than others. Further, I would argue that the answers to moral questions—the moral truths—must ultimately be found through our intuition rather than through intricate arguments or philosophies (although these are certainly a useful part of the process).



Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, has offered some justification for an intuitive basis of morality.  In an interview, he commented that while some moral values “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.”[i] With this kind of psychological understanding as a basis, I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us. (I discussed this in “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate.”[ii]) In a similar vein, the journalist Christopher Hitchens described his understanding of human moral intuition in his work God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:


Like murder and theft, this [incest] is usually found to be abhorrent to humans without any further explanation. . . . [the Golden Rule is] a sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness . . . . [The Rule] is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it. . . . [C]onscience is innate. . . . Everybody but the psychopath has this feeling to a greater or lesser extent. . . .[iii]



Despite this conscience, or intuitive moral sense, that humans possess, an array of psychological factors obstruct our intuitive grasp of moral truths. This is a vast topic, but in this article I have selected twelve psychological factors that might work against our finding moral truth on any issue, as well as three factors that are specific to the abortion issue. I think of this article as sketching the broad outlines of how psychological factors interfere with moral intuition. My aim is to provide a basic framework to be filled out by further research. 



The psychological factors are as follows:



1. The mental longing for simplicity. No elaboration is needed here. (I can keep it simple!)


2. Upbringing. In the long-standing nature-nurture debate, I would take the following position: we are born with intuitions of certain moral truths already within us in latent form, but various actions or inactions by parents and teachers can undermine the development of those moral intuitions, or create an overlay of false values, or both. Even a casual look is enough to show us the importance, in the development of our attitudes, of background and upbringing.


3. Tribalism.Even someone who switches, for example, from pro-choice to pro-life or vice-versa may immediately start demonizing the side they had just been on.


4. Projection.We expect others to view some things and value some things just as we do.


5.  Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.


6. Denial. We see only what we want to see. Or sometimes we see something, but compartmentalize it away from the part of our mind that would reject it.


7. Lack of introspection.If it is true that intuitions of moral truths exist within us and that they began to form in us before we were capable of rational analysis, then it should be clear that to find them we must look within and that this search within will not be a process of thinking up new ideas, but of rummaging through what is already there. We may need to make such efforts frequently, and with patience, over a period of time.


8. An excessive faith in the efficacy of logical argumentation to resolve moral issues. This faith seems to be borne out of a psychological need for an orderly understanding of our environment, perhaps borne in turn out of an illusion that such conceptual order gives us some kind of control over our environment.


(This is certainly not to say that there is no place in moral investigations for logic. I think that all the thought experiments and probing for inconsistency and arguments that go on are indispensable, but they are indispensable because they nudge us toward more accurate moral intuitions, which are not essentially based on logic.[iv])


9. The manufacture of perceptions.  As just one example, if you hear “My body, my choice” enough times, and are not presented with alternative views, after a while you will come to really believe that there is only one body involved in an abortion.


10. Doctrinal baggage that comes along with the valuable elements of a religion.  Atheism advocate Sam Harris has described a transcendent experience that he once underwent sitting by the Sea of Galilee. He writes:


If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. . . .  If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman. . . . If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness.” [v]


The meditative and devotional techniques of various religions can bring about in us these transcendent states, arguably the most wonderful states we have ever experienced. Although Harris and others strive for totally non-religious forms of meditation, it must be admitted that religions are, today, still ahead of conventional science in the knowledge of such techniques. As a result, when someone experiments with such “religious” practices and discovers that they constitute a certain specialized wisdom that science seems to be lacking and that most directly leads to happiness, they are likely not only to adopt that valuable meditative practice, but also to buy the whole religious package, including whatever that religion teaches about astronomy and evolutionand the ensoulment of a newly-conceived baby. If the religion teaches that ensoulment does not take place for the first three months, for example, and that abortion before that point is permissible, then even if that teaching happens not to be correct, they will believe it.


This psychological factor is different from factor 5 above, in that I think it can occur even in a psychologically very healthy person.


11. Limited human intelligence.


12. Unlimited human ego. A big percentage of discussions about moral issues comes down to a garden-variety contest of egos. Discussions become more about winning, belittling, and mocking than about trying to understand clearly. People write on any topic partly because they want attention. It has been said, “More people write poetry than read it.” Similarly, it may be that more people talk than listen.


Most of the 12 factors listed above can contribute to different forms of cognitive dissonance: we sense a contradiction or incompatibility between the beliefs psychological factors move us toward and the beliefs our moral intuitions move us toward. We cope with cognitive dissonance by adopting ideas that violate our natural intuitions, and then shoring those ideas up with techniques such as confirmation bias.


Among the psychological factors that work against intuitively finding the moral truths within, there are also some differences of perception that do not come into play in relation to most moral issues, but do come into play in relation to the abortion issue:


13. Incorrect intuitions about the unborn.Some people see the unborn, especially the early unborn, as a snapshot, and some see it as part of a process. If a small embryo were to remain just as it is, frozen in time (a snapshot) we would have to say quite fairly that its life would not have much value.


Both ways of looking at the unborn are scientifically useful for different purposes. It is not science, but only pre-logical intuition, that identifies the unborn as an organism with little moral value or an organism with great moral value. If there are indeed moral truths to be found, however, one of these two intuitions must be less correct than the other.


14. Incorrect intuitions about the importance of bodily rights. One important source of variations in intuitions about the importance of bodily rights is different cultural senses of the relative weights to be given to the individual and to the collective. Almost the greatest relinquishing of bodily right imaginable is when a person submits to being conscripted into an army, where he or she will risk all his body organs being blown to bits. Different cultures vary greatly in their acceptance of military conscription. Yet if there are indeed moral truths to be found, one particular moral truth about bodily rights must be correctnot all of the diverse intuitions about bodily rights can reflect that truth. (I have written elsewhere about bodily rights.[vi])


15. Incorrect intuitions about what’s wrong with killing.Among all who get involved in discussions about moral issues, killing and violence seem to have, in general, a bad name. One would think that that would give us some common ground. But it turns out that although killing is universally disreputable, it’s disreputable in a nebulous way. We disagree on exactly what is wrong with killing.


My moral intuition is that what is most wrong with killing is that it deprives an organism of its future life. But in discussions about abortion, I have often encountered expressions such as this one: “I can’t imagine caring one way or the other being aborted if I didn’t possess a fully functional nervous system.” Here any harm to be done by killing seems to depend on the organism’s caring, at the time of the killing, about its future life (this view does not, after all, contest the fact that a currently unconscious embryo will have a fully functional nervous system soon and will eventually care about its future life). This view seems to exclude the possibility that any harm can be caused by depriving an organism of its future life, whether the organism deprived of life cares about it at this moment or not. Thus the only real harm that this view is willing to consider is the harm of frustrating a desire, on the part of the organism, to live.[vii]


This is one example of how there are different intuitions about what is wrong with killing. Yet if there are real moral truths to be found, then not all the intuitions can be correct.


By identifying 15 different psychological factors that interfere with moral intuition, I have tried to develop a kind of checklist. I think that if anyone can go through the checklist and neutralize in themselves each of the above-mentioned psychological factors, their thinking will become clear. Their minds will become cleared of endless clutter. And when other people encounter a clear mind like that, they in turn become forced to clear their own minds.


This clarification process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological factors enumerated above will be loosened. Arguments, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.


Personally I expect that the truth that we will find through moral intuition will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously dehumanized group. (The importance of psychological factor 13 above cannot be overestimated.) Do I expect all this due to some psychological blinders of my own? Time will tell.

[i] Sam Harris, “The Roots of Good and Evil: An Interview with Paul Bloom,” Sam Harris (blog), November 12, 2013,

[ii] Life Matters Journal 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, also available at

[iii] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008), 53, 213-214, 256.

[iv] “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate” in Life Matters Journal, Volume 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, and

[v] Sam Harris, Waking Up (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 81-82.

[vi] “Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument,” July 8, 2014,

[vii] For a discussion of this issue, see Kelsey Hazzard and Acyutananda, “What Babies Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Them, Right?,” Secular ProLife (blog), January 4, 2016,


Further thoughts on the above LMJ essay:

1. Psychological factor 4 above is “Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s felt or at least expressed moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.”

I think it would be safe to say that in the context of the abortion issue, the groups or ideologies most concerned in this way are the Catholic Church and evangelical churches on the pro-life side, and the pro-choice feminist movement on the pro-choice side. My point here is not to take issue with any Christian teachings as such, or with pro-choice feminism as such; and certainly not to say that commitment to either can stem only from neurosis. My point concerns unquestioning belief. I think that it is human nature always to question, but that those Christians who happen to be fanatic about their religion due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that abortion is wrong without further examination, just because their religion says that that is God’s command. And I think that those pro-choice feminists who happen to be fanatic about their ideology due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that protection of the unborn is wrong without further examination, just because their ideology teaches that it is somehow part of a system of oppression of women. (By the way, pro-life feminists have offered at least some clues as to how that belief became the majority belief within the feminist movement, which, apart from the embrace of abortion rights by its majority, must be the most inspiring revolutionary movement the world has ever seen. See Serrin Foster’s speech “The Feminist Case against Abortion.”

Again, to say that people who have neurotic emotional needs (more so than the fairly neurotic average in society) – angry people for instance – gravitate toward a particular movement does not necessarily reflect at all on the movement itself. Many of the most psychologically healthy, or even radiantly healthy, people I have met are to be found among the ranks of Catholics and evangelicals; and it’s likely that some of the finest people may be found in the ranks of pro-choice feminists also. The position of the latter on abortion rights may be based not on moral blindness, but simply on blindness about the reality of the unborn. And regarding Catholics and evangelicals, I am awed by what they have done in holding the line against abortion, as much as it could be held, for all these years.

2. Above I said, “I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us.”

Slavery in the US was never proved to be morally wrong. If after all the years of harsh exploitation of the slaves and bitter strife among the whites, a formal paper in some philosophy journal had finally convinced everybody that slavery was wrong, that document and its philosophical proof would now be more famous than the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Thirteenth Amendment. But there was no such paper; rather, undoubtedly there was a multiplicity of contradictory papers, all of which together played only a modest role in the process. The collective moral sense simply evolved. Uncle Tom’s Cabin probably played a bigger role than any formal proof.

The politics – not least war, that “continuation of politics by other means” – and economics involved in the end of slavery were very complex. But moral evolution must have played its part. The chains of people’s psychological complexes faded over time so that the chains of slavery could more readily be broken. People who were incorrigible vessels of outmoded thinking died off.

And I said above:

“A similar process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological foibles enumerated above will be loosened. Logical syllogisms, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches, within or without formal papers, will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.

“Personally I expect that the truth that we will find will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that, as in the case of slavery, the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously-dehumanized group. (The importance of 13 above cannot be overestimated.) . . .”