The Psychology of Abortion Regret
To date, Abort73 has published more than 700 stories of abortion regret. We’ve also heard from upwards of 50 women who say they don’t regret their abortion. But in almost 15 years of existence, Abort73 has never heard from a woman who regrets giving birth. Why is that, do you think? Do such women not exist? Statistically, it’s almost certain some do—and it’s possible that guilt or decorum is holding their tongues, but I think it’s safe to assume that there’s a more obvious explanation for this dramatic disparity. That’s because there are clear and cognizable reasons for why a woman is more likely to regret an abortion than she is to regret giving birth.
Michael Lewis, my second-favorite author of that surname, wrote a book recently called the The Undoing Project. It centers on the paradigm-shifting work of two Israeli psychologists—Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman. Together, they changed the way we understand human decision-making. Specifically, their research helped demonstrate that most of the decisions we make aren’t nearly as rational as we assume them to be. “When people become attached to a theory,” Kahneman observed, “they fit the evidence to the theory rather than the theory to the evidence.” Tversky added that, “Once we have adopted a particular hypothesis or interpretation, we grossly exaggerate the likelihood of that hypothesis, and find it very difficult to see things any other way.”
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In the realm of medical diagnosis, Tversky and Kahneman discovered that not only do the experts frequently contradict each other, they frequently contradict themselves—when surreptitiously asked to diagnose the same results twice. It turns out that the human element, when it comes to decision-making, is often a disadvantage. Simple algorithms, built from the experts’ own knowledge, consistently outperform the experts themselves. Why? Because the algorithms aren’t subject to the bias or emotion which can wreak havoc in our own calculations. More on that later, but first a word on regret:
Amos and Danny had a thought: People regretted what they had done, and what they wished they hadn’t done, far more than what they had not done and perhaps should have. “The pain that is experienced when the loss is caused by an act that modified the status quo is significantly greater than the pain that is experienced when the decision led to the retention of the status quo,“ Danny wrote in a memo to Amos.
Though their observation had no explicit connection to abortion, you can see how it relates. It provides a rationale, in fact, for why women are more prone to regret an abortion than they are to regret a birth. On the one hand, abortion is an attempt to maintain the status quo. It is an attempt to return to one’s pre-pregnancy state. But what the aborting mother fails to recognize is that the status quo has already changed—the moment she became pregnant. If nature were allowed to run its course, a baby would be born. So when this woman modifies the status quo, by hiring someone to kill her tiny helpless child, she psychologically assumes culpability for the outcome. The same holds true for her decision to have sex in the first place, since sex itself modifies the status quo—whether a baby results or not. This is why she is more likely to wish she hadn’t had sex than vice versa. It’s the psychology of regret.
None of this is meant to imply that maintaining the status quo is morally superior to forsaking it. Sometimes it is just the opposite. The principle is simply that all things being equal, you’re more likely to regret something you did do than something you didn’t do. Of course, with regard to unplanned pregnancy, all things are not equal. You see, there are even bigger reasons for why women are so much more inclined to regret an abortion than they are to regret giving birth. First, mothers are hard-wired to love their children—fiercely. No matter how problematic their arrival may be, that doesn’t change the intrinsic attachment most mothers feel for their children. Once they see that baby, smell that baby, hold that baby, and nurse that baby, the pain and anguish melt away.
Second, the arrival of a newborn leaves minimal time for reflection. The ongoing demands of that baby tend to occupy all the energy and attention a mother can spare. Abortion, by contrast, leaves women alone with their thoughts—providing an all-too-fertile feeding ground for misery and regret. Even with the estimated 10% to 20% of mothers who experience postpartum anxiety or depression, the relentless demands of their baby help to keep most of them from checking out completely. They may experience months of doubt and despair, but their regret—if you want to call it that—is almost never permanent. At one point in The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis notes the following:
Occasionally, people who watched Amos (Tversky) in action sensed he was more afraid of being thought unmanly than he was actually brave. “He was always very gung ho,“ recalled Uri Shamir. “I thought it was maybe compensation for being thin and weak and pale.“ At some point it didn’t matter: He compelled himself to be brave until bravery became a habit.
There is a lesson here for all of us, but particularly for young mothers. The best way to become a good mother is to simply act like a good mother. That’s the transforming power of practice over time. When we act a certain way—whether by willpower, coercion, or simple necessity—we tend to become a certain way. Aborting women frequently argue that they’re not ready to be a mother, not realizing that motherhood is something you learn by doing. And giving birth is perhaps the most quintessentially life-altering event in the entire spectrum of human experience. The woman who gives birth to her first child is not the same woman who conceived that child. The process changes her; the mothering instinct kicks in. She becomes something else entirely—by both nature and demand. In large measure, women who aren’t ready to be a mother become ready when a baby is thrust upon them.
In today’s climate, having a baby is an act of courage. It’s an expression of optimism and hope—whereas abortion is an expression of cynicism and fear. Over the years, I have heard from countless women who’ve shared the same basic sentiment. Their lives were a mess, marked by immaturity and irresponsibility, until they suddenly had to take care of a baby. It was becoming a mother that finally motivated them to get their acts together. Abortion does no such thing, though it does seem to grease the wheels of self-destructive behavior. Just like Amos Tversky, when you act with courage, you eventually become courageous. But when you give in to fear, you simply become more of a coward. To some extent, all of our decisions are self-fulfilling prophecies, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the suicide rate is so much higher following an abortion than it is following a birth.1*
Returning to the topic we began with, even if there is a significant number of mothers out there who secretly wish they’d had an abortion, their collective silence is telling. It would seem to indicate a recognition that expressions of birth regret could do serious psychological harm to a child. The self-censoring of these mothers—hypothetical though it be—is evidence that they love their children and would be unlikely to turn back the clock, even if they had the chance. But what about all the proponents of abortion who don’t self-censor for the psychological well-being of the “unwanted” children who might hear them? Even 42 years after being placed for adoption by her 16-year-old mom, Sharon Autry feels as if she must continuously justify her own existence. She wrote via email that every expression of public support for abortion feels like a “gut-wrenching” moratorium on her life. She expounds:
I’m the unwanted child. I’m the financial burden. I’m the too many beers. We have faces, souls and names if we’re given the chance to live. My self-worth is challenged daily because I hear the continual argument of why it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been killed. I would have been killed! Not mysteriously disappeared! How painful this all is! … And then I named it. The feeling of unworthiness and inadequacy I’ve felt my entire life. It’s survivor guilt.
Though I’ve been vocationally-connected to the issue of abortion for 20 years, I don’t know that I’d ever considered the ongoing impact its availability might have on those whose lives were rescued from the cusp of its menacing shadow. In the case of Sharon Autry, it’s left her wrestling with the question of whether or not the output of her life has been “good enough” to justify its bestowment. This is a burden unbeknownst to most of us—reminding me of the iconic conclusion to Saving Private Ryan, when the dying Captain Miller exhorts the film’s namesake to “earn this.” Said differently: You should have died, so you better accomplish something extraordinary with your life. That is a heavy burden to lay at a soldier’s feet—let alone an adopted child’s.
The emergence of legal abortion has introduced a perverse cost-benefit analysis into our collective psyche—which seems to be leaking into other realms as well. The idea that each and every human being has intrinsic value is steadily being replaced by the notion that our human value is mainly utilitarian. Individuals don’t matter as much in this economy, especially individuals whose existence is deemed “inconvenient.” To make this form of collectivism more socially palatable, the abortion industry has long emphasized the inconsequential differencesthat separate human embryos from human toddlers, but ignored the similarities of substance. This is no accident. Michael Lewis observes:
If you wanted two people to think of themselves as more similar to each other than they otherwise might, you might put them in a context that stresses the features they shared. Two American college students in the United States might look at each other and see a total stranger; the same two college students on their junior year abroad in Togo might find that they are surprisingly similar: they’re both Americans! By changing the context in which two things are compared, you submerge certain features and force others to the surface.
By submerging certain features and forcing others to the surface, the abortion industry has masterfully trained us to see unborn human beings as categorically different from born human beings. But classifications, as Amos Tversky pointed out, can be artificially self-affirming. “The similarity of objects,” he wrote, “is modified by the manner in which they are classified.” In other words, the perceived similarity of two objects—or dissimilarity—is heavily influenced by preexisting classifications. Lewis notes that “a banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit.” Likewise, human embryos seem less similar to human newborns than they actually are because the sub-categories “embryo” and “fetus” have supplanted the more broad and significant category: “human being.” “The mere act of classification,” Lewis warns, “reinforces stereotypes.”
Unfortunately, the effort to downplay the humanity of unborn children isn’t the only sleight-of-hand employed by advocates of abortion. As much as they love to talk about “choice,” the abortion industry is remarkably adept at steering women towards one particular choice. “People [do] not choose between things,” Lewis explains. “They choose between descriptions of things.” Economists once assumed that you could measure what people want based on what they chose, but now they know better. Now they know how susceptible our choices are to subtle manipulation. Consider:
When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery—which is of course just a different way of putting the same odds—only 54 percent chose the surgery. People facing a life-and-death decision responded not to the odds but to the way the odds were described to them... The decisions people made were driven by the way they were presented. People didn’t simply know what they wanted; they took cues from their environment. They constructed their preferences. And they followed paths of least resistance, even when they paid a heavy price for it.
The abortion industry is well-versed in the art of persuasion. Even the name Planned Parenthood is an environmental cue, an artificially constructed preference. History be damned, it tells us, parenthood should be planned and controlled! And so they monetized the path of least resistance and turned it into a highway—to sell women what they don’t really want but think they need. And we’re all paying a heavy price for it, in both lives lost and lives broken. You cannot enshrine injustice and come away unscathed. So if you find yourself in an unplanned pregnancy and are contemplating abortion, know this. There is a significant chance you will come to rue the day you ended your baby’s life, but there is almost no chance you will come to regret giving birth.
From the book Complications: Abortion's Impact on Women: “A (1997) study of 408,000 British women over a five-year period found that women who had induced abortions were 225 per cent more likely to attempt suicide than women admitted for normal delivery. This study also found that the rate of attempted suicide prior to pregnancy was similar for both groups.”
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