Buried away somewhere in our collective subconscious is the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of children are aborted every year in the UK. As a civilised, democratic society we have somehow to square what we’re allowing to happen to these young lives with our need to view ourselves as decent, compassionate and caring.
Cognitive dissonance is a term first coined by psychologists to describe the unease we feel when facing a situation which causes a conflict between our attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This feeling of discomfort leads to an alteration in one of the beliefs or behaviours in order to restore balance.
So for instance, I might think that it’s important to vote in my local election (belief) but I can’t make it to the polling station on time. I have some options to reduce the dissonance this causes me: I can either drop what I’m doing and make sure I do get to the voting station on time (change my behaviour) or alter my belief that voting’s important by telling myself that my vote doesn’t count anyway (change my belief).
On a societal level we’ve developed a veritable arsenal of tools to relieve our collective cognitive dissonance about abortion. Unwilling to change our behaviour (we allow what is effectively abortion on demand) we reduce the discomfort this causes us as a nation by altering our attitudes to abortion. Among the beliefs promoted to ease our consciences are that the woman has the ultimate right to choose what happens to ‘her’ body and that there are too many people in the world already.
Lying at the heart of all the altered attitudes we use to justify abortion is the belief that unborn babies are not human beings at all. We tell ourselves that a person’s size has a bearing on their humanity (it’s just a clump of cells), that their location influences how human they are (they’re in the womb and so out-of-sight-out-of-mind) and so on. And we also say that how wanted a person is determines their status as a human being.
If my unborn child is wanted I will refer to it as a ‘baby’. I may find out the sex, may even give it a name. I’ll do my best to nurture the growing baby, I’ll talk and sing to it and my partner and born children might do too. The unborn baby becomes part of my family long before it’s born. I will welcome the impact it will have on us all and it will begin to affect our identity as a couple, as a family. It’s part of our future the moment we discover it’s there.
But if it’s unwanted and I’m in turmoil, I’ll relieve the dissonance I feel at wanting to get rid of it by calling it a ‘foetus’. I’ll tell myself it’s not yet human and it’s kinder, more responsible, not to have the child. I will prioritise other things over it – our born children, our relationship, our ability to pay the bills, our mental health. I’ll tell myself that this baby just is not possible right now and an abortion isn’t that big a deal – women have them all the time.
No one understands this kind of rationalisation more than Life. For over 40 years we have been listening to women and providing the kind of services which make an impossible pregnancy possible. We understand the sheer panic which can accompany an unplanned pregnancy, plunging a woman’s life into crisis. We understand the pull of abortion as a quick solution.
But no pregnant woman ever wants an abortion – she has had to work very hard at alleviating the dissonance she feels at having to choose to get rid of her pregnancy. So our services provide the vital support that is often necessary for her to keep her baby. Housing, counselling, financial help, baby equipment, information – all these things, we hope, help to take the ‘crisis’ out of a crisis pregnancy.
By providing these services, we give women the opportunity to think of the ‘fetus’ she is carrying as a ‘baby’, to consider her unborn child as human, as a person with potential, not a potential person. By providing the positive alternatives to abortion we open up a world of possibilities; not only do we affirm the right to life of the unborn human being but we also prevent the woman from having to undergo something she never wanted but could see no alternative to.
Our task as a decent, caring society is to care for these most vulnerable of people – the unborn – not dehumanise them. An unborn child’s wantedness does not determine their status – they are either human or they are not – and whether or not we feel able to welcome them immediately is our problem to solve, not theirs.