Abortions in the U.S. have been on a steady decline over the past few years. The rate of abortions per woman, the ratio of abortions to live births, and the number of places and doctors performing abortions are all down. This is not merely heartening news to pro-lifers: According to the insights of psychology, it provides a prime opportunity to convince more people of pro-life views. We need to do two things: Mention the decline every reasonable chance we get, and come up with new reasons for it.
Psychologists have been aware for decades now that people have a basic need for consistency in their thinking. If they don’t have it, they have “cognitive dissonance.” This is a form of tension, and to relieve it people will go through all kinds of mental gymnastics. Anyone who has watched people make the case for abortion availability could provide examples.
If the dominant national trend is to have more and more abortions, as was happening in the 1970s–or to hold steady at a high rate, as was happening in the 1980s–then pro-lifers have a major problem in converting people to their cause. People will be more likely to take on pro-abortion views simply to be consistent with the prevalent behavior in their communities.
Most people also want their beliefs to be compatible with a positive self-image. Feminist rhetoric about choice has presented the pro-abortion side as noble and virtuous; people who buy into their claims want their beliefs to be noble and virtuous as well, hence, they adopt a pro-choice stance. Once they become secure in this upbeat self-image, able to view themselves as champions of freedom, they are loath to change.
But that’s not where we are right now, mercifully. It’s not just abortions on the decline generally–there’s a dramatic drop in women getting a first abortion. The numbers are only being kept as high as they are because of repeat offenders, women who, thankfully, at least have a built-in limit: Their abortion cycles have to stop once they hit menopause. Since women must have their first before they can have their second, the supply of repeaters can’t keep up. If trends continue, a dramatic drop in total abortions lies ahead.
So what should we do in this in-between time? Strikingly, we find that a decreasing number of abortions can yield a positive self-image too: The task is to market the new pattern as a positive change, and to show that a pro-life philosophy can also be noble and virtuous. After all, it seems to be the new dominant community behavior–for consistency’s sake, more and more people should jump on the bandwagon. The very dynamic that was working against pro-lifers before will work in their favor now.
But there is more than this to the psychology of it: People will need new information to account for the change in public behavior, and to justify and facilitate their own conversions. If abortion is the killing of babies, then why didn’t everyone oppose it before?
Luckily new information, and new reasons to change, abound. People thought that abortion legalization would end “back-alley butcher” stories, but instead the horror stories continued and expanded. Experience shows that women are often pressured into abortions (so much for increasing their freedom to choose), and that the aftermath of an abortion can be devastating to women. Researchers have found a link between abortion and increased risk of breast cancer. There has been an upsurge rather than a decrease in child abuse. Well-intentioned people have come to discover over time that the alleged benefits didn’t materialize, and abortion “rights” didn’t help women.
Will we ever get people to understand that, whatever the merits of all these other reasons, there is the most basic moral point that it’s wrong to kill babies? Sure. After the psychology takes its hold, and after they have held an anti-abortion position for a while–consistent with the facts of the current decline in abortions–then the essential epiphany is most likely to come. In the meantime, though, pro-lifers can prime the pump by drumming home the psychological message: Cutting down on abortions is okay. Everyone’s doing it.
Rachel M. MacNair, a psychologist, is director the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis and is author of Achieving Peace in the Abortion War. She is former president of Feminists for Life of America.