The human ability to rationalize is demonstrated in the lengths we will go to redefine what it means to be a person. First, we commit ourselves to do something we think is in our best interests. We start with our conclusion, the place we want to end up. Then we look for ways to get there while still keeping our sense of personal morality intact, so we don’t have to be plagued by guilt. This is called rationalizing.
Simultaneously we reject information that would prohibit us from doing what we’ve already decided we want to do or that would make us feel guilty about what we’ve already done. When looking at abortion, the last thing we want to consider is information that would lead us to believe that we participated in the killing of a child. No one wants to face such a thing.
Distancing ourselves from information that contradicts our beliefs and actions is called denial. Rationalization and denial are methods we use to cope with unwanted, stressful information. This is why arguments for the prochoice position are saturated in rationalization and denial. At the end of the day, it is alarmingly easy for us to ignore evidence to the contrary, as well as the promptings of our consciences, and simply believe whatever we want to believe.
In a recent blog, I shared Justin Taylor’s summary of Peter Kreeft’s analysis of abortion rights. In his same post, Justin wrote, “Consider Professor J. Budziszewski’s analysis of the rationalizations for abortion in light of the widely held belief, ‘It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life.'"
In a 2005 Amicus Curiae brief, Budziszewski wrote this:
If deep conscience really does hold within it a belief in the wrong of deliberately taking innocent human life, then consider where this leaves a woman who has an abortion. Parsing the rule against murder, there are only six possibilities of rationalization. She may tell herself (1) that her act is not deliberate, (2) that she is not taking anything, (3) that the unborn child is not innocent, (4) that it is not human, (5) that it is not alive, or (6) that what is wrong may be done.
For purposes of the present analysis, the problem is not that all six lines of justification are literally unthinkable. Indeed, all six are commonly entertained. The problem, rather, is that they are so implausible as to require a large dose of self-deception to be accepted. At the moment of decision, a woman may try desperately to talk herself into such the rightness of abortion, but it is impossible to believe it “all the way down.”
Budziszewski then compellingly analyzes each of the six rationalizations:
Possibility 1: “It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life.
But I didn’t mean for this to happen; I wasn’t trying to get pregnant.”
The reasoning here is that if something happens that I do not intend—in this case, pregnancy—then no matter what I do about it, I am not responsible. This line of thinking is incompatible with any coherent idea of personal responsibility.
It is like saying “I didn’t plan for my wife to become disabled, therefore I am not responsible for poisoning her.”
Possibility 2: “It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life.
But I’m not taking life, the doctors are doing it. This is just something happening to me. I’m not involved.”
This time the underlying reasoning is that once I have made a decision, the results are out of my hands—even if I planned and intended them.
It is like saying, “I didn’t take my landlady’s life. If you want to blame someone for her death, blame the hit man I hired, not me.”
Possibility 3: “It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life.
But the fetus isn’t innocent. It has invaded me, violated me, made me pregnant.”
The sole purpose of the uterus is to home and house the baby, who has no place else to go. Yet the baby is here regarded as akin to a trespasser or rapist. Although it is hard to imagine an actual pregnant woman taking this view, some abortion proponents consider it quite promising, perhaps because judges will sometimes believe things that ordinary women cannot. Thus, attorney Eileen McDonagh writes that the fetus is “objectively at fault for causing pregnancy.” It is “not innocent,” she says, “but instead aggressively intrudes on a woman’s body so massively that deadly force is justified to stop it.” Although “some might suggest that the solution to coercive pregnancy is simply for the woman to wait until the fetus is born,” she complains that “[t]his type of reasoning is akin to suggesting that a woman being raped should wait until the rape is over rather than stopping the rapist.” Yet even McDonagh admits, in an unintentional testimony to the enduring power of the deep structures of conscience, “[f]ew people are going to be comfortable with the idea.”
Possibility 4: “It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life.
But it’s not human—it can’t feel, it can’t think, it can’t communicate—and how could it be human if it’s so small?”
Among pro-abortion philosophers, this rationalization is by far the most popular. The reasoning is that human personhood, who-ness, depends on criteria like sensitivity, intelligence, and self-awareness, and the fetus is just a what. Of course born people too can be more or less sensitive, more or less intelligent, more or less self-aware. Therefore, by this reasoning, born people too must be unequally endowed with personhood—some more, some less. The only question is whom we shall have as our masters. At the top may be those with the most exquisite feelings, the most complex thoughts, the keenest sense of self—it is not difficult to guess who these philosophers have in mind. At any rate, such arguments merely touch the surface of moral awareness. It is a matter of everyday observation that pregnant women do think of their fetuses as human persons, and the thought comes back to haunt those who have had abortions. They view themselves as having violated not only the prohibition of murder but also the duty to care for their babies.
Possibility 5: “It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life.
But it’s not alive, not truly. It’s more like a blood clot. Or like my period just won’t come down.”
Such a thing was easier for a woman to believe before the discovery of the nature of conception. It takes a ferocious act of denial to go on believing it in an age of moving ultrasound pictures. Blood clots do not roll over and suck their thumbs.
Possibility 6: “It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life.
But sometimes you have to do what’s wrong.”
Logically, this option is nonsense. That something must not be done is what it means for it to be wrong; to deny that wrong may not be done is to say that wrong is not wrong, or that what must not be done may be done. Psychologically, however, the option is tempting: “I just can’t have a baby right now. . . . My parents would have a fit. . . . My boyfriend would leave me.” The pattern of the temptation is ancient: “Let me do evil that good may result.” Some women who do what they themselves consciously regard as wrong try to square the act with perceived moral law by resolving to be sorry later. Whatever the ethical status of such a resolution, it is psychologically devastating. By making it, one literally calls down upon oneself the Furies of conscience. When a woman talks herself into a justifying script that she cannot really believe “all the way down,” then her surface moral beliefs, such as they are, are at war with her deep conscience. This produces disastrous consequences.