Pro-Choice and Pro-Life and Cognitive Dissonance
by Tulasi-priya Dasi
Someone commented that Obama doesn't condone abortions; he condones "choice." Well, if I don't condone bank robbery but I do condone a person's choice to rob a bank, that may be enough to get me arrested as an accessory to the crime.
Let's leave aside the idea that part of any leader's duty is to protect the citizens of the nation from harm (and according to the Krishna conscious philosophy, fetuses and even animals are considered citizens), whether directly (by military defense) or indirectly (by enacting and approving legislation). Just what do we mean when we say that we condone "choice," even if we don't necessarily condone the action resulting from that choice?
Someone wrote me a very polite note commenting on my status, which I am reproducing here anonymously:
"I myself am pro-choice. However that doesn't mean I agree with or condone killing fetuses. I simply feel that people deserve to make their own choice. That is NOT saying that their choice is either right, or that it will not effect [sic] others. I think a lot of people are in the same boat as me."
This comment reflects a commonly held mindset, one that is not fully integrated with truth. As the writer notes, "I think a lot of people are in the same boat as me." It's true: we all experience various cognitive dissonances, and we rationalize and justify them to some degree. However, abortion is too serious an issue from the karmic standpoint to brush aside. I write this not to make accusations against anyone; I'm addressing what I see as faulty reasoning, not character flaws. Although to hold on to faulty reasoning out of stubbornness or sentiment is a character flaw.
First, let's define our terms. If I say that it's all right for others to make a choice to act in a certain way, even if I would not act that way myself, I am in fact "condoning" their actions ("condone" means "to regard or treat (something bad or blameworthy) as acceptable, forgivable, or harmless"), even though I do not commit those actions myself. If I think that people "deserve" or have the right to make their own choice that means that I also consider what they choose to be a positive thing, a good thing, something that society and the state should allow. After all, people don't "deserve" or have a right to choose to do bad or harmful things. The choice, in the case of "pro-choice" generally means the choice to abort. After all, the other choice (in a situation where abortion is being considered) would be "unwanted pregnancy," and who's in favor of that? In other words, "pro-choice" = "pro-abortion."
Second, is this a question of truth or of mere opinion? I say it is a question of truth. A person cannot say certain things are wrong on a moral level (such as cheating, stealing, or murder) for himself but not for others, because moral laws are universal. Morality means people as a whole recognize and acknowledge what is already true, not merely that what they decide or vote for is true. If I say that I think lying is wrong, what does that mean; that everyone can lie with impunity except for me? No, what I'm saying is that nobody ought to lie. And as for choice: everyone already has a free choice anyway, be it to lie, steal, cheat, or kill. We always have; it's what we as a society let our members get away with that's at issue. If an individual or many individuals recognize an act to be wrong (such as war, abortion, murder, terrorism, child porn, corporate cheating), that de facto means that I believe that it should not be done by anyone. How is it okay then for others to do it? Answer: we say it's not, for everything but abortion.
This way of thinking wouldn't work for any other moral issue, but millions of people have no problem wrapping their minds around such illogic when it comes to abortion. Try substituting other morally loaded words and see what happens.
"I myself am in favor of completely free markets. However that doesn't mean I agree with or condone corporate greed and cheating. I simply feel that corporate executives deserve to make their own choice. That is NOT saying that their choice is either right, or that it will not affect others.
"I myself am pro-defense. However that doesn't mean I agree with or condone war. I simply feel that the President/Congress deserves to make his/their own choice. That is NOT saying that his/their choice is either right, or that it will not affect others.
"I myself am pro-sexual freedom. However that doesn't mean I agree with or condone child pornography or pedophilia. I simply feel that horny people deserve to make their own choice. That is NOT saying, etc. etc, etc.
The reasoning is absurd when applied to these examples because we recognize the moral issues at stake and their effects on us. Society would collapse in a day if we were to adopt the typical "I-don't-condone-it-but-I-think-people-should-have-a-choice" mentality for anything but abortion. But because karmic paybacks are complex, we don't connect the current problems of society (war, AIDS, cancer) with the ability to not have kids when we don't feel like it. But karmically speaking, there is no free lunch. The problems attending the birth of unwanted children which we seek to avoid by abortion are simply debts that accrue interest until come due, either in this life or in a future one. Srila Prabhupada makes the connection in an interview with a reporter:
Prabhupada: Well, that is also another unnatural thing. ...they use contraceptives. They kill children, abortion. ... These are all sinful activities. ... to kill child in the womb. .. One has to suffer for that.
Woman reporter: Is the social unrest in this country caused because...
Prabhupada: Because of these things. They do not know that.
Of course, we don't have to believe that Prabhupada knows what he's talking about. But perhaps he knows something we don't. Perhaps he sees an even bigger picture than what is at stake with this election. Millions of unborn children have been killed in the womb, decade after decade, legally since 1973. Anyone who thinks that that has not had a huge influence on the current state of world affairs is not thinking very deeply. The problems of this country were not caused solely by any politician or party, nor will they be solved by them. We act, as individuals and collectively, across the generations (karma), and receive the reactions (also karma), which includes the kind of leadership we get.
The chief consequential difference between lying/war/stealing/child abuse/crimes of passion and abortion is that those affected by war or theft can speak up and/or defend themselves, while fetuses cannot. No fetus is hiring a lawyer or pointing an AK-47 at us to make us think twice about it.
If I acknowledge that a fetus is a living being, and that life is the symptom of the presence of the soul (and if I don't accept the idea of the soul then there is nothing at stake but the struggle for dominance), then it is clear that abortion is murder, and no amount of inconvenience or hardship experienced by the mother because of pregnancy changes that fact. The motive does not change the nature of the act; it only makes it more understandable (to varying degree). To understand is not to condone. We may understand why a man would kill someone who molested his child, or murder an unfaithful lover in a jealous rage. It may even affect to what degree he is punished. But it does not keep him from being put on trial and judged for the crime of murder. If society were to start letting that sort of thing slide, we would soon have worse problems to worry about.
If someone really wants an abortion, she will get one regardless of anyone's approval or permission. Whether we condone it or not is of greater importance to the moral observer, the human witness (as opposed to the Supersoul), who sees the act and makes a moral judgment on it.
What's really happening when we say we condone the right to choose, even if we think abortion is bad or wrong? As long as we aren't in that situation we can take such a stand; it allows us to feel moral without any bondage to the consequences of that position. We want to be free to choose, not on the basis of truth or morality, but on whatever is expedient for us in a given situation. That we condone the right to choose gives us an escape hatch through we can duck out of a moral tight spot.
How has it become acceptable to say that something is wrong, but that people should be allowed to do it? Aside from being illogical, it's a recipe for social insanity. Are we afraid to say abortion is "wrong" for fear of being labeled "judgmental"? Have people become so conditioned to fear being "judgmental" that they don't realize that it's virtually impossible to be non-judgmental?
That's one of the things that makes us human: we're continually making judgments, deciding what's good and bad, what is to be done and what is not to be done, both individually and collectively. When the choice is between personal gratification and a burdensome relationship with a fetus, however, the cognitive dissonance gets cranked to full volume. We can't bear it, so we simply make unconscious rationalizations to keep from examining our values and living in accordance with them. Or from changing them, no matter the cost to our comfort level. We want to think we're good, so we tell ourselves we are, choosing the evidence that corresponds with our perceived self-image, and neglecting or twisting what doesn't.
If, theoretically, I supported abortion rights (even while finding the act itself repugnant), and I were going to be truthful with myself and others about it, I would express my views like this:
"Even though a fetus is an individual living entity and a member of the human race (it's not a camel fetus or a bean sprout), I reserve to myself the right to kill it should its existence in my body or my life be at all problematic for myself or others. I resent being restricted by the laws of God or nature, especially when it comes to my sexual gratification, and I'll make use of anything that frees me from those strictures, illusory though that freedom may be. In this, I am grateful for the help of modern technology, which saves me from getting my hands dirty with infanticide (or diapers) and which helps me to remain relatively unconscious of the nature and consequence of my act, which is the killing of a living entity that I ushered into being."
Ultimately, when we act on a moral principle, we don't choose only for ourselves; we choose for everyone. What we know ought to be done by us is what ought to be done by anyone. I invite anyone who reads this to examine their most cherished values—tolerance, democracy, honesty, forgiveness, rationality, humility, patriotism—and see if you don't believe that others should value and act upon them also, especially if you share a culture, society, or country with them. If you don't think abortion is a wrong choice for others, chances are, if you find yourself in a similar circumstance, you won't really think it's wrong for you either. Whether the values you hold dear are worthy is a topic for another essay.