Thursday, 19 August 2010

Understanding how abortion plays out in Australia's election land

So here is my prediction for Australia's Federal election this Saturday. 

When the hard analysis is done, whoever wins, my prediction is that the campaign against Emily's List and other pro-abortion candidates will be shown to have had exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

I'd love to be proved wrong on this.  But I don't think I will be, and I think it is time to start the conversation about why things have reached this point.

Abbott on abortion last night

Someone actually tackled Tony Abbott on abortion last night at the Bronchos Club forum, and eventually elicited the response that 'Federal intervention on abortion was not his policy'. 

That's not surprising for two reasons: first it reflects the assessment being made by all parties that opposition to abortion is more of a vote loser than a vote winner.  That's why something like Emily's List can even exist, why candidates are so coy about stating their actual views on life issues.

Secondly, it is unclear just how strong Mr Abbott's position on the issue actually is, given past statements that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" (a position that frankly doesn't seem a million miles away from that of Ms Gillard whose 'pro-choice' position is rationalised on the basis that unless abortion is legal "Women without money would be left without that choice or in the hands of backyard abortion providers").

In fairness, Mr Abbott did actually take some action as Health Minister to attempt to persuade women not to abort.  Whether his Government if he were elected PM would do something along the same lines though is unclear - presumably it depends on who ends up being Health Minister.  Certainly there is no stated policy to that effect.

Understanding the psychology of abortion supporters

The Catholic Church's position is simple: abortion is murder and should be opposed as such.

But just because we (few) understand this does not mean that we should automatically condemn all those who support abortion being legal as supporters of murder.  Objectively that is the case.  But subjectively, not always (or even mostly). 

We should not forget the human capacity for self-deception, and the capacity to be deceived by the prevailing cultural constructs. 

It is true of course that people often do instinctively understand that abortion is wrong - that's one of the reasons why vigils in front of abortion clinics and such like measures can have an effect.

But God gives us revelation to supplement and act as a corrective for the operation of reason, to make clear the natural law, because of our consistent ability to get things badly wrong when left to ourselves (especially when helped along by malign influences).

And our society has managed to come up with a variety of rationalisations and ways of seeing abortion as not only not murder, but as something that is perfectly acceptable in the cause of preserving one of our society's touchstones, namely (the illusion of) personal control over one's destiny.

A little psychology

Seriously constructed world views will not be shattered just by calling something what it is - on the contrary, doing so typically leads to attempts to fend off the attack through demonisation of the perceived enemy (ie the persons who threaten to undermine your cosy worldview). 

We need to remember some basic psychology: people do behave in irrational and destructive ways and even believe that they are correct to do so when the culture they are brought up in teaches them that what they are doing is correct.  And the first reaction to any 'cognitive dissonance' that we can induce is to reject the new and contradictory information that is provided, and engage in justification, blame and denial.

I would venture to suggest, for example, that most (but not all) of those supporting Emily's List do not see further liberalizing access to abortion as its primary objective, but rather increasing the proportion of female MPs committed to a feminist agenda (and that may seem a subtle difference, but it is an important one).

So how do we change the game?

There are ways of changing perceptions about abortion. 

Mr Abbott is probably right for example in implicitly arguing that an outright ban is not feasible until we create the environment where abortion is seen for what it is.  There are lessons to be learnt, for example from health protection strategies that have turned around views on things like tobacco use and made it possible to ban smoking from public places indoors and out. 

Shock tactics can be useful: stories from people whose parents were advised to abort them; dissemination of pictures of children in the womb; and so forth.  But it is the intellectual battle, swaying hearts and minds that ultimately has to come into play, and name-calling is counter-productive in this.

We also need to keep in mind that until we tackle the real underlying issue of the proper use of sexuality, we are tackling symptoms not causes.  And putting abortion in the context of the whole web of cultural practices that flow from contraception and the detachment of sex from reproduction is a much harder challenge to tackle. Cases such as that of the current prosecution for murder of the Australian sportwoman who had two abortions, adopted out two children, and allegedly murdered another after birth, though, can help expose the logical inconsistencies of our society's mores. 

Pro-life advocates might also be well advised to focus on the web of supporting policies that are needed as well: making adoption easier and a socially accepted alternative for mothers, for example; and focusing on supporting the economics of large families through housing, childcare and other policies.

Some lessons for the pro-life movement

There is of course a certain horror that we have to face in the idea of tolerating even for a moment the holocaust of abortion once you see it for what it is.  But we need, I think to understand the veil that clouds the minds of our society on this subject, and understand that changing that will not happen overnight just by shouting loudly enough.

The early Christians had to work slowly and gradually to stop horrors such as the exposure of children at the whim of Roman fathers, converting people one by one to Catholicism.  I think we too need to understand that winning the war on abortion really requires winning the war against secularism in general, and requires evangelization on all aspects of our beliefs: understanding the truth on life issues is much easier when we reject relativism in general and understand the fullness of truth.

This will not be a popular post with many in the pro-life movement. 

But I hope it provokes some serious thought.

In particular, I would argue that a little toning down of the shrill rhetoric will help the cause not hinder it.


R J said...

The average young Australian Catholic - being too illiterate to be aware that Catholic confessional states once existed in Spain, Portugal, Austria, Ecuador, Argentina, and elsewhere - is committed to upholding two policies that cancel each other out: (a) that abortion is to be opposed, but (b) that democratic majoritarianism must invariably and noisily be upheld.

Of course we are now in a position (as the latest election makes extra-clear) where public adherence to (b) makes (a) absolutely impossible. Every Australian opinion poll for years has shown, God Almighty help us, that the average yahoo (whether or not he calls himself "Catholic") wants abortion to be available and legal.

Simply to hint that democratic majoritarianism does not and should not have a headlock on Catholics' allegiance is to be howled down as "fascist", "elitist", and (among pundits who actually finished high school) "Lefebvrist". Meanwhile, those of us audacious enough to possess historical memories going back earlier than about 1997 will continue to be marginalised (when not actively mocked) by our ostensible co-religionists, who will persist in imagining that political thought consists of yapping adenoidal encomia to "the theology of the body".

Terra said...

While I agree with you on the merits (or lack thereof) of the theology of the body, I'm not entirely convinced that firstly the majority really do want unrestricted access to abortion (in fact most of the polls seem to suggest at least some qualms) or the impossibility of selling a pro-life stance in a democracy.

What democracy (and in the end andy other system, because they all require some degree of acquiescence from the people) requires is that policies be sold.

The malade of the current election was that no one was prepared to actually stand on principles and leader counter to popular opinion.

But it has been done successfully before - Howard on gun control for example. And indeed the failure to stand up even if the focus groups don't support you is one of the reasons why Rudd was knifed and Labor did so badly.

What it requires however is sophisticated engagement. Some are trying - the electorate of Canberra for example very nearly had a contest between two pro-life catholic traditionalists (Michael Cooney and Guilia Jones). But what is needed is for more to actually join and work within the parties to leaven the dough, or to work outside to make the case palatable.

R J said...

Thank you for your detailed and generous response to my remarks. Yes, it's good that talented and scrupulous people like Michael Cooney are able to be pro-life spokesmen in Canberra (and there are pro-life ALP figures in South Australia whom I've had the privilege of meeting). But these, regrettably, are exceptions; and while it might well be true that the average Australian does have certain qualms about abortion, these qualms have to date been signally inadequate to turn him against the practice at a legislative level.

While I'm open to correction, I don't know of a single recent opinion poll which has indicated a pro-life majority on either abortion or euthanasia. And as for any sizeable non-Catholic (or even Catholic) constituency against that whole contraceptive culture which your original post mentioned ... well, I can dream on, I guess.

Nor do I believe - as the average pro-life activist still does in Australia - that it's merely a matter of educating the punters into feeling an appropriate horror at abortion. I'm reminded of what a Latin Mass priest said in Melbourne some months ago (I quote, as best I can, from memory): "In an age when the Internet enables us to read more Catholic documentation in three hours than our grandfathers could obtain in a year, the notion of 'invincible ignorance' no longer cuts the mustard." My fear is that anyone who was ever capable of being turned from anti-life to pro-life attitudes has already been thus turned.

Meanwhile we have prelates like Cardinal Pell, who really are intelligent and well-read enough to know better, defending the so-called "separation of church and state" with at least as much zeal as any Jeffersonian Freemason (no doubt they do so through misguided loyalty to the incipient Camelot imperium of 1960). If the "separation of church and state" means anything, it surely means that achieving and preserving a religiously neutral regime should be Catholics' first priority. First Commandment, hello?

Howard, apropos gun control, had two advantages over the pro-life movement: first, that most Australians are happy to surrender most of their freedoms to the government anyway (if only because we, unlike Americans, never fought either a civil war or a war of independence); and second, that all of the ALP was at least as pro-gun-control as Howard was himself. There's no analogue to this situation, sadly, when it comes to pro-life issues.

Terra said...

The correct analogy for what is required is not, I think, educating but converting. I'm not sure i agree about invincible ignorance - the existence of the information is one thing; accepting it as having some validity is another. What is needed is a transformation of an entire mindset.

That there isn't a substantial constituency against the contraceptive mentality is basically the point of my post: the pro-life campaign seemed to assume that if you could just point out that a candidate was part of the evil Emily's List (with some interesting extrapolations and distortions as to their agenda deemed all fair in war I guess) then people would vote against them, when in fact the opposite was more likely to be the case (as indeed a seat by seat analysis would show).

I don't readily have a reference to the most recent poll on the subject, but while I agree that there is a high degree of support for euthanasia and abortion, it is not unequivocal. When more nuanced questions are asked (about late term abortion, etc) the figures fall dramatically. While that's depressing, it provides something to start from.

As to the few prominent prolifers in the ALP (and for that matter the Coalition), you have to start somewhere. What is needed is enough people to join up and work across a broad front of issues to gain credibility, and work to change platforms and perceptions from within these parties (I know some think the Coalition is better on these issues; I think that is naive).

And they need to do it fast, before the Greens gain any more traction.