The abortion fight won’t go away. This month the United States Senate failed to create a fund for victims of sexual trafficking because an abortion provision had been inserted into the bill. Meanwhile, legal challenges are proceeding in many states over recent legislation that restricts the constitutional right of women to have abortions.
Deeper psychological understanding of this conflict can help to resolve it. For starters, we have to talk about abortion without becoming so uncivil and confrontational. The abortion debate is very emotional because, behind it, a larger battle is being waged over issues of submission, compliance, and control over the minds of women and men.
I’m not interested in changing anyone’s position on the abortion issue. I only want to bring a few psychological ideas to the debate. These ideas may be helpful and stimulating to people who are ambivalent or undecided, as well as those who are firmly in one camp or the other.
So what’s going on in our unconscious mind? Some people unconsciously identify with the fetus. Identification is a psychological process through which we “get into the skin” of people or creatures in order to feel what we imagine they’re feeling. In doing this, we often experience a painful, negative emotion. This identification takes place because we’re compelled to experience whatever is unresolved in our psyche. People can be identifying with the fetus as a “person” who isn’t wanted or valued. Such painful feelings correspond with unresolved hurt in their own psyche.
Old emotional associations with feeling unwanted, unloved, rejected, and abandoned are widespread. These memories linger in our psyche. Even children with kind, decent parents can misinterpret situations and accentuate impressions of being refused, controlled, criticized, or rejected. Of course, it can be worse for children who were badly treated. Children tend to be quite subjective in their assessment of family life, and they can take personally any perceived slights or signs of being unappreciated or devalued. Often these hurts remain unresolved as we age, and adults unwittingly recycle this deep or hidden pain in daily situations.
Such issues from the past shape present-day beliefs. On the abortion issue, concern for the protection of the fetus is not necessarily about being empathetic or compassionate. Rather, people can be reacting in an unconscious process to their own unresolved emotions. When abortion is considered, people can, as mentioned, identify with the fetus as being allegedly unwanted, unworthy, and unloved. This identification recycles their unresolved hurts. They now lose objectivity because they see the abortion issue through their own unresolved emotional issues.
At such times, a psychological defense can kick in. Typically, we’re not aware that we have employed a defense that denies (or covers up) our emotional attachment to some unresolved pain from our past. In this process, people deny that they’re identifying in an unhealthy way with the fetus. Unconsciously, they make this claim: “I’m not preoccupied with the preservation of the fetus in order to recycle my own unresolved feelings of being unwanted or unloved. Look at how much I value the fetus. I want the fetus to live!” As they try to cover up their emotional resonance with the “unwanted” fetus, they’re inwardly obliged to rate the life of the fetus as the supreme consideration. In order to be effective, this defense can sometimes require that they become vocal pro-lifers.
The issue of abortion rights is largely about personal responsibility and inner freedom. Ideally, as we mature and become wiser, we come to know our own mind, to trust our own wisdom, and to act in personal matters on our own authority. People who don’t have this inner freedom can feel a compulsion to repress that freedom in others. They also resent the freedom of others, at which point they begin to denounce the various expressions of that freedom. Yet how can anyone legitimately assume to tell others what is right or wrong in this gray area of human experience when they don’t know the deep origins of their own beliefs or understand their compulsion to curb the freedoms of others?
A rigid pro-life approach is based in part on an emotional alignment with our strict, authoritarian inner critic (superego). For many of us, our inner critic is the hidden master of our personality. This primitive, irrational part in us poses as our legitimate authority. Many people are passive to their inner critic, which means they live at this inner level with little or no sense of personal authority. They are more comfortable with being instructed by others in what to believe. They’re familiar with being held accountable by a voice of authority that is not their own.
Whether pro-life or pro-choice, many people do swing back and forth between an emotional alignment with the will of the inner critic and, its opposite number, an identification with inner passivity as manifested in defensive self-doubt and chronic uncertainty. This conflict has numerous manifestations involving worry, anxiety, fear, and self-alienation. This inner conflict produces emotional weakness. As a result, many of us live passively under the thumb of dysfunctional institutions, alliances, and governing bodies that take advantage of our lack of inner development and treat us like children.
Our inner critic often lashes out at us with disapproval when we try to make a firm decision, whether about having an abortion or spending $20 for an article of clothing. This agency of our psyche makes it difficult for us to establish our inner authority. Inner freedom is attained by resolving inner conflict and letting go of lingering attachments to unresolved negative emotions. However, we can’t feel a connection to such freedom when we’re buffeted in our psyche by aggressive and passive impulses and drives. In our mind, the abortion issue and other crucial questions become a matter of: “Do I dare believe in myself and trust my own judgment and wisdom, or do I let others tell me what to believe and what to do?”
Such people are allowing the aggressive and passive voices inside them tell them what they should believe and do. (Read, Defeating the Inner Bully.) Inner conflict is unresolved within them. Lacking insight, people often tilt in favor of the most righteous or the most authoritative inner voice, just as many also come under the influence externally of the most righteous and authoritative political or religious voices.
Many pro-choice women and their partners can feel painful guilt after having an abortion. This guilt is due largely to the fact that, through their inner passivity, they allow their inner critic to challenge their right to have made such a decision. Invariably, the inner critic contends that the individual made a bad choice, or at least it sows seeds of doubt. Our inner critic has no business butting in on our decision-making process. Its power is illegitimate, its thrust is negative, and it can’t be trusted to represent one’s wellbeing. What we can trust, instead, is our authentic self, our legitimate center of authority. This evolved self emerges as we resolve the inner conflict between the aggressive and passive positions in our psyche.
People on both sides of the abortion issue can also react negatively to the impression that the other side (pro-life or pro-choice) is trying to force its ideas down their throat. This sets us up to be stubborn and confrontational, which accounts for much of the emotionalism and lack of civility in the abortion debate. Again, this mirrors how our inner critic operates intrusively in our psyche and how, through our defenses, we adopt, as a counterfoil, various expressions of reactive aggression that tend to be self-defeating.
There are other factors fueling the abortion fight, including the temptation to feel righteous and morally superior, and we need to expose them, too. The debate, in large measure, involves human evolution, the quest for personal responsibility and autonomy, as well as the forces of resistance, both inner and outer, that block the development of human consciousness. The abortion issue presents us with an opportunity to explore the deeper dimensions of our psyche, an exercise that, rather than producing rancor and misery, can be stimulating and liberating for all.