Abortion and Why We Believe



I have this memory when I was young, still a child, thinking about my politics and deciding that of course I was a conservative, mostly because I couldn’t fathom the pro-abortion argument. I was pro-life and that, if my memory serves me right, was the pivot issue that moved me firmly on the conservative side of the political ledger. Later, in my adult life I spent a lot of time working myself over and through the abortion issue to justify my democratic votes and eventual transition into the democratic party.

I’m not unique here. Trump won the presidency in large part because of that open Supreme Court seat and Roe v. Wade has been one of the primary animating issues organizing the religious right behind the Republican party. Abortion for many people is the pivot issue moving them into one political party or another.

Why We Believe

Is this universally true? I think it’s complicated. In a recent interview, Daniel Kahneman, author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the fundamental nature of the way we think. In his analysis, we have two systems at work, System 1 is intuitive, it’s the part of our brain that immediately answers the question 2+2. It’s what we use to get us through our commute every day without even thinking about it. System 2 picks up the 17×24 type of problems. It’s slower and more deliberate but it’s also lazy.

A completely different one, which occurs to me because you mentioned politics, is that one of the important realizations that come from thinking of the world in terms of System 1 and System 2 is that our beliefs do not come from where we think they came. And let me elaborate on that sentence. When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the way that I would see this is that the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs.

So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

When I think about how I came to my abortion issue, it goes much further back in time than that memory in that kitchen in my childhood home. It’s rooted deeply within my Mormon heritage, which is rooted deeply in Christianity and in the Catholic’s pro-life stance. The Mormon church’s institutional decision to oppose abortion is a large factor in my early pro-life position. The tradition and culture I was raised in, planted a very powerful seed. As I grew older, the people I associated with, the pro-life arguments I read and heard over the years, over and over again, rooted a powerful pro-life position deep within my System 1 brain. I’ve had a life-long attachment to the pro-life position.

I think this gets to the heart of clustering, we join a political party or some other identifying group and automatically adapt much of the hot-button issues associated with that group. Our identity drives our ideology. Maybe not explicitly, but over time as we develop relationships, hear arguments and aim for alignment and acceptance, these ideas and positions embed deeply into System 1. And that’s why social media interactions can be so fraught. As we engage with people outside our groups, operating as they are within different frameworks, our interactions become both baffling and emotionally fraught.

Social media is a forum driving System One interactions. It’s all visceral and automatic. It’s System One all the way.

Back to Kahneman:

And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

Where I Stand on Abortion?

I think this article gets to both sides of the argument profoundly. It certainly drives home the powerfully emotional reasons why so many women felt Roe v. Wade had life or death stakes for women. The famous 1973 court case extended the right of a woman to have an abortion in the first two trimesters of the pregnancy but then gives the states the right to regulate in the third.

In the article Caitlin Flanagan describes her family history with abortion. First, her mother’s 60 years ago encounter with a botched abortion that happened in her apartment while her and her roommates were away. Or earlier, her grandmother’s likely death caused by an attempted abortion during the Great Depression catastrophe.

She spends most of the article citing the horror stories recounted in two books, The Choices We Made, detailing horror stories in the world pre-Roe v. Wade and The Girls Who Went Away, describing the horrors of forced adoption pre-Roe v. Wade.

She makes a point I’ve heard Jordan Peterson also make. There’s nothing more misogynistic than Mother Nature. It’s been only in recent history with the advancements of science and technology, that the roughest edges of nature have been smoothed over. Pregnancy is nowhere near the health risks it used to be, birth control has only recently become effective at significant unwanted pregnancy reduction.

Every month, a woman’s womb slowly fills with blood in anticipation of an event that she wants to occur only a few times at most, and that up until 70 years ago had a good chance of killing her. This is nature’s unkind way with women. The sort of man who knocks a woman up and then disappears is nowhere near as heartless as nature, which allows a fertilized egg to implant in a fallopian tube, or arranges a baby’s body in the womb in such a way that it cannot by any natural means escape through the birth canal, or spreads the placenta across the cervix so that it will rupture and cause a hemorrhage almost certain to kill the mother if no medical staff is on hand to stop it. The fact that modern medicine has so radically reduced the incidence of death in childbirth testifies less to the wonder of science than to the crudeness of the dangers at hand.


They reveal something about the eternal and dangerous nature of being female, and because of this, they merit a great deal of our attention. The way these stories begin tells us as much as we ever need to know about the profound and complex decisions women make when they decide to have sex.

I think the arguments for the legalization of abortion are still strong, but they have weakened since the 1970’s.

But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate. The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.

I don’t have a firm position on abortion. I love this fairly brief debate on abortion between Ross Douthat, a firmly pro-life Catholic conservative, Michelle Goldberg, firmly pro-choice liberal, and David Leonhardt a moderate who considers himself pro-choice but has concerns. I learned a few things that aren’t often discussed in our polarized, binary versions of the debate that often happen on-line today.

European-Style Compromise:

It seems like Europe has settled on a really nice compromise position:

In Germany, women seeking first-trimester abortions are subject to a mandatory three-day waiting period and a counseling session. Abortions after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are forbidden except in cases of grave threat to the mother’s physical or mental health. The Netherlands mandates a five-day waiting period between initial consultation and abortion; clinics must provide women with information about abortion alternatives. Abortion is then legal until viability (legally defined as 24 weeks, usually interpreted as 22 weeks).In Belgium, where abortion was illegal until 1990, there’s a six-day waiting period and the woman must claim to be in “a state of distress” before receiving a first-trimester abortion.

These are the types of laws and restrictions pro-life advocates have been seeking with enormous pushback from the pro-choice crowd worrying, justifiably about slippery slopes and end-goals that extend far beyond this.

Even Pro-Lifers Make Moral Distinctions between early term abortions and late term abortions

Perhaps this is an obvious point with the righteous fervor they bring to the late-term abortion debate, but I think the point is still an important one to make again.


Even from a pro-life premise, there is a particular horror to third-trimester abortions. The pro-life view of abortion is always a form of murder, but there are various forms of murder and murdering a more conscious, a more sentient form of human life is worse than doing it in the first trimester.

Goldberg in response:

Most pro-choice people will say if that’s the compromise we’ll take it. We would happily take a situation which abortion is free, widely available, and uncontested in the first trimester in exchange for these sorts of restrictions.

The reason pro-choicers don’t except the restrictions is because an increase level of restrictions ends up pushing pregnancy into the second trimester where most of them currently happen in the US.

Goldberg gets to the heart of it, the level of social trust between the two sides on this (and many other) issues is so low that compromise is impossible and both camps are pushed to extreme positions – on one side, abortion is illegal except under extreme circumstances, on the other, abortion should be legal under all circumstances.

I’m uncomfortable with either of these extreme positions and it’s why I dislike the abortion argument binaries that inevitably unfold when fought with our System 1 brains as they so often are on-line.

Third trimester abortion is gut-wrenchingly horrifying because it is way too close to outright infanticide. Locking up women and doctors for first trimester abortions seems equally horrifying especially considering the risks and consequences still at stake especially in the weakening social safety nets in the US. Really, I don’t feel comfortable locking up women or doctors for any but extreme cases. Abortion restrictionists usually are vague when discussing punishment.

For me, finding a European style compromise of some sort seems like the end-goal we should try to get to, but it’s also the sort of compromise that seems impossible given our current political environment, which is why the status-quo seems like the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future.