My wife and I met 31 years ago, when we were both arrested in front of an abortion clinic during an Operation Rescue protest. Over the years this has become part of family lore, and the coincidence of pro-life activism and romance has not been lost on our children. All of them have been pro-life activists, and all of them have done so with barely concealed romantic hopes.
We tend to weave events together. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when you’re a prolifer, everything is viewed through that dreadful-hopeful lens. Even now, most of our friends are fellow prolifers, because we work shoulder to shoulder and we share a world-view. A like-minded community tends to self-reinforce.
Of course, prolifers are united by a conviction that we must protect the innocent, but first we are united by scandal. We feel deeply estranged from our culture, which has legalized the killing of unborn babies. At another level we are conflicted, because this after all is the culture in which we live and this is the country we love. We are united with our pro-life friends by cognitive dissonance.
Behavioral economics shows how cognitive dissonance can be a potent starting point for making sense of the world. An “anchoring heuristic” is a foundational perspective, informing our understanding of everything that follows. Real estate agents, for example, might show you a set of three properties, beginning with one they know will not meet your expectations. It’s included to establish a low baseline, which will make the second and third properties look much better to you.
But at a deeper level, the first property is an irritant, creating a sense of dissatisfaction and impatience that seeks resolution. The first property propels you to action; it creates an itch requiring a scratch. At first your dissatisfaction with it is subconscious. And then it becomes an intuition. The Oxford Dictionary defines “intuition” as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.
Every prolifer has a baseline sense of dissatisfaction and urgency. We have experienced many moments of great darkness, reflecting on the nightmare that is abortion. We have thought about the brutal deaths of the children, but also about the effects of abortion on mothers and fathers and doctors and society as a whole. We have wondered at the architecture of meaning that is created for surviving children.
Prolifers have an intuition. Many of us are deeply alarmed by the popular fascination with zombies and the undead. The young know that they too might have been aborted, that their being is merely a contingent good. There is an unspoken kinship with the discarded dead and an impending reckoning. Prolifers intuitively understand what Pope John Paul II meant by the culture of death.
But at the same time, we exist in the sunny uplands of modernity. We live and even flourish within this culture. This is no small thing. To live side by side with people requires trust. We trust people to grow and prepare and distribute our food. We enter into contracts that assume mutual good will or at least a solid trust based on enlightened self-interest. We expect that fellow citizens will respect our property and not inflict bodily harm on us. And we trust law enforcement to protect us from vandals and others who would threaten our personal safety.
More than that, we feel affection for other people. We meet with friends and strangers all the time and are surprised and pleased by the basic human sympathy that blossoms among us. We like them. We need them. And yet many of the people we like and need—and sometimes love—do not see abortion as evil. Many of them may well describe themselves as pro-choice. We live in a state of low-resolution emotional conflict.
And then a macro-event like the novel coronavirus occurs. A powerful disruption in the way we had grown accustomed to living, it has created a fork in the road of everyone’s life. It is impossible to continue on as before, in the sleepwalk of untested foundational assumptions and expectations. We are all confronted by an existential crisis, forced to look deeply at the meaning and purpose of life, as well as the goodness and durability of our civilization.
The strangeness of the new normal is breathtaking. For weeks, everyone has witnessed and experienced an unprecedented level of public and personal tension. We’ve come to identify others as either coronavirus zealots or skeptics. Families have been divided, neighbors have reported on neighbors for not social distancing. People have become much more isolated and much more dependent on government.
Pro-lifers, already anchored in cognitive dissonance, already in the habit of thinking the unthinkable, go where angels fear to tread and connect the dots. Where there is design, we think, there must be a designer. And where there is a perfect storm that brings civilization to a halt, there must be some Svengali-like evil genius behind it all, pulling the strings.
And now, just as people long confined to their homes by government order are beginning to reenter their communities, we are beset by another crisis—or maybe another chapter in the same crisis—as America convulses with riots. President Trump has identified Antifa as orchestrating the mayhem and is proceeding to designate it a terrorist organization. Demands to defund police departments, which only two weeks ago would have sounded unhinged to the vast majority of citizens, are now being considered by politicians in Los Angeles and New York City, the two most populous cities in the country.
When I began writing this column, I intended it as a caution to prolifers: that we not let our cognitive biases and our predisposition to embrace a crisis narrative lead us to entertain conspiracy theories. Just days later, however, I am far less convinced by my own thesis. In other words, based on evidence everyone is familiar with, I’ve come to think that the coronavirus and the riots are not just disconnected random events.
But we must not allow ourselves to be paralyzed and overwhelmed by the scope of what is becoming apparent. Nor can we allow ourselves to become mesmerized by fear and confusion as our world seems to become even more disoriented and surreal. We must continue to take time to pray and listen to Our Lord, to listen to and love our families and friends, and to do the pro-life work at hand. For nearly half a century, legal abortion has been an integral part of what threatens Western civilization. And the reality is, our struggle to end it has always been, and will continue to be, a matter of life and death.