A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: At last, finally, wholeheartedly pro-choice

Monday, May 09, 2022

I never wanted to preach how to think about abortion. I didn’t even want to tell anyone how I thought about it. This is probably because in my early decades I vacillated. Everyone I knew and respected was pro-choice or silent. If I ever knew a woman who was not pro-choice I was not aware of it. The men I knew didn’t discuss the topic.

Somewhere along the way my attitude toward the fetus changed. I knew I was supposed to think it was perhaps a part of the woman's body but definitely not a person. It became increasingly difficult to think this way. I went back and forth in my heart of hearts as to how I felt about abortion although my support for choice did not waver.

For me, it was incontrovertible that with time and normality the entity, whatever it was called, would be a human. So it was human.

Perhaps it was because time stopped being real for me that I was persuaded of the fetus’s humanity. I found that it made complete sense to realize that there is only this moment, that the past is only thoughts going on in this moment about events that have happened, and the future is only thoughts going on in this moment about events that may never happen. I don’t have a logical argument as to why my change in view of time should change my view of the fetus but I intuit there is a relation.

After years of struggle with how to resolve my personal conflict between seeing the fetus as a person and wanting to support women choosing what to do, I finally settled with “It’s none of my business. It’s the woman’s business. It’s her choice. And whatever I may think about it is irrelevant.”

This worked for me. For decades. I thought I’d finished with the question. Then, a month or so ago, seemingly from nowhere, up popped the thought, “Why is it that I support Social Services removing an abused child from abusive parents but I support a mother choosing to abort a fetus. Isn’t the latter the greater abuse?”

I knew a counterargument would run, “But the fetus is not a person and the child is.” But I also knew this would not work for me.

Again, I was not looking for a position to preach to others. I only wanted to find a place that made sense to me. I innocently approached a good friend with my quandary. This gentle woman verbally beat me around the head with a handy laptop for about a half hour, or so it seemed. I finally asked what her objection was to my trying to reach a position I could live with.

She explained I was thinking in abstractions and ignoring the fact that the fetus is in the woman’s body. I argued. Soon the heat got too intense and we agreed to leave the topic.

I licked my wounds and staggered away to apply more thought.

Two illuminations arrived.

With the first illumination I realized “The fetus is in the woman’s body” meant I needed to be in the mind of the woman who for whatever reason cannot endure a(nother) pregnancy nor bear the presence of a(nother) child. I needed to grasp the excruciating aspects of her situation and realize that my toying with trying to find a position misses the point of her situation.

Here, finally, I became the woman, desperate to be free of an impossible burden, and felt I had some understanding of why my friend rejected my toying with abstractions.

At last, I was finally whole-heartedly pro-choice.

Does some contradiction remain between being pro-choice and supporting the defense of the abused child? Maybe. In some abstract domain. But in life, in the world, I can support the woman in her situation and the child in theirs.

Now, for everyone, there is only the small chore of creating a world of peace, equity, dignity, and humanity where individual choice is respected and abuse is found only in history books.

The second illumination concerns evil thinking. I have reserved “evil” for doing bad action, in the name of an abstraction, that one would never do otherwise. For example, slaughter to defend freedom, torture to protect society. Now I believe one can think evilly. One can think in terms of abstractions that lead you to conclusions about right action that miss what is actually going on. I’m ready to call this unintentionally evil thinking.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.