May 11, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, May 11, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Cognitive dissonance in the NYT: Defending a woman's right to abortion & the disabled's right to life
Cognitive dissonance is the condition of attempting to hold two irreconcilable positions at the same time, simultaneously to hold onto a contradiction. Cognitive dissonance is actually something of an achievement; that is to say, it is a condition that is possible only if you take ideas seriously. The lack of cognitive dissonance is one of the hallmarks of our increasingly non-thinking age. People hold contradictory positions without that discomfort of cognitive dissonance. But if there ever were to be a classic demonstration of cognitive dissonance that should have our attention, it came in the form of an opinion piece published yesterday by the New York Times.
The headline of the article by Jennifer Bartlett,Show Full Transcript
“Disability and the Right to Choose”
Jennifer Bartlett identifies herself in this article not only as the author of the book Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability Beauty, she also identifies herself as both a mother and a person with a disability. In her case, it is cerebral palsy. She begins her article by saying that,
“As a young woman, I had no particular desire to be a mother. I was neither for nor against having and raising a child, and as things were at the time, the opportunity had not presented itself.”
She says that opportunity did come when she met Jim, the man would become her husband. She goes on to say,
“In my 20s, I was neutral about parenthood partly because, as a woman with cerebral palsy, I was spared the usual intrusive questioning and expectations about having children that most women are subject to.”
She went on to say that people never actually pressured her to have children; they just assumed that she would not, but she and her husband decided that they would have a child. Then continuing in the article she writes,
“My disability is not genetic and it does not hamper pregnancy.”
“The real difficulty came from elsewhere — it was dealing with the medical establishment during my pregnancy that I was not prepared for.”
She explains in her own words that,
“Navigating the medical system as a pregnant woman is difficult.”
But she goes on to say that as a disabled pregnant women, in her words, “it is nearly impossible.”
But where the article takes the most interesting turn is when it comes to the fifth month of her pregnancy. Five months into her pregnancy, her doctor sent her to a hospital to have an ultrasound in order to “‘check’ the fetus.” The word check is put in quotation marks. She says,
“My doctor did not give the reason for the procedure or what it would determine. I later learned that in addition to determining the viability of the pregnancy, this type of ultrasound is used to detect Down syndrome and other birth ‘defects.’”
The word “defects” is also put in quotation marks. She said,
“I was already beginning to understand the ways in which modern medicine could be used to devalue, or even weed out, people with disabilities.”
This is something that we along with others have been tracing for years. There is now, it is acknowledged by all responsible medical authorities, a system of attempting to help pregnant women to weed out problem pregnancies and, most importantly, to eliminate pregnancies that might lead to a child with a disability. And this is now becoming so routine that this kind of testing that this woman says happened in the fifth month of her pregnancy is happening in many cases even earlier. The child born to Jennifer Bartlett and her husband is now 14. That means that these tests are now coming considerably earlier, and along with that the now increasing medical imperative to abort a child that is considered to be less than perfect.
Later in her article, Jennifer Bartlett writes,
“When I got pregnant, my husband and I discussed what we would do if our child had a disability. I didn’t have any anxiety about it. In some ways, I viewed the possibility as an opportunity. If my son ended up with cerebral palsy, he would be like me. If he ended up with a different disability, we would have a chance to see the world in a different light. Either way, there was no question in my mind that I would not have an abortion, no matter what the circumstance. We wanted our son, whether or not he had a disability. As it turned out, he did not.”
The importance of this article becomes even more clear in the next paragraph when Bartlett writes,
“In 2004, when my son was 3, I read an article in The New York Times that deeply upset me and has stayed with me. In it, Amy Harmon wrote about fetal genetic testing and the hundreds of “defects” that, even then, could be predicted before birth,” as she acknowledges, “(this technology has since evolved rapidly, as we know).”
“If an abnormality is detected, parents must make the decision whether to continue with the pregnancy or abort. One woman, with a genetic condition that caused her to have an extra finger, which she’d had surgically removed, chose to end two of her pregnancies because tests detected her fetuses’ having the same condition. This instance is the extreme, but it is by no means an exception.”
Now just to pause at this point in the article, indeed this is extreme, but even more importantly, it certainly is not an exception. The reports coming in from medical authorities indicate that parents are increasingly aborting pregnancies that are even suspected of leading to the birth of a child that might be in any way less than what the parents find, along with the prevailing medical establishment, now as optimal.
At this point, what’s most important for us to recognize is that Jennifer Bartlett has identified herself as being disabled. She has written movingly about the particular difficulties that come to a disabled woman who was also pregnant. But then she has gone on to point to the decision that she and her husband had made that they would have their child regardless of what prenatal diagnosis might have revealed. Then she uses the example of the woman who terminated two abortions merely because there was a diagnosis that her unborn children would have an extra finger, and she clearly believes that that is an extreme case.
Where’s the cognitive dissonance? It comes immediately in the next paragraph. She writes,
“I support legal abortion and am not criticizing women who have made the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy because of a disabled fetus. There are situations in which the life of the child would be so painful and short that abortion would be the most compassionate option.”
Now what’s really interesting there is that she herself has changed the terms of the discussion. She has moved from using the word defects with a quotation mark around them to using the term disabled as if it has no quotation marks whatsoever. And as she is moving into this part of her argument, the cognitive dissonance comes when she clearly believes, implies, that it was wrong for that mother to abort two babies because of an extra finger and then turns around in the very next paragraph to insist that she supports legal abortion and is not criticizing women who have made what she characterizes as the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy because of a diagnosed disability.
It turns out that the major argument Jennifer Bartlett’s trying to make in this article is that parents who are confronted with the decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of a prenatal diagnosis of abnormality should not consider abortion merely to be the given. She wants there to be at least two sides of the argument presented. Furthermore, she raises the specter of the fact that with increased availability of future diagnostic tasks, it might well become possible even to diagnosis the sexual orientation of an unborn child, raising the possibility already raised by Andrew Solomon in his recent book Far From the Tree that parents might decide to abort children who have an unwanted sexual orientation. Now Jennifer Bartlett never comes out and says that would actually be wrong. She says there should at least be two arguments made: the argument to abort and the argument not to abort.
So here’s the cognitive dissonance that is so excruciatingly clear in this article. Here you have a woman who writes so movingly about her own disability and also about her own child. She writes with grave concern about the reasons for which many persons are now terminating their pregnancy, and she raises the danger that in the future that list might even be expanded. She is writing with moral judgments against the abortion of these children, especially when she says we already know that it is being used for sex selection abortions. But then she goes on to insist at the same time that she is eagerly and unreservedly for abortion rights. She concedes that cognitive dissonance when she writes,
“The right to legal and safe abortion is a core element of American feminism and the struggle for women’s rights. This puts me in a strange position. When I think about this issue, I feel my very existence questioned. As a disabled woman, I have been told flat out, ‘I’d rather be dead than be like you.’”
She then goes on to say,
“Even the Dalai Lama has said that aborting a fetus with a disability is understandable.”
She then goes on to ask,
“How do I begin to hold this contradiction in my mind? That I am a valid, beautiful human being — as are all my friends, some of whom have much severer impairments — and that I also support women’s right to choose, a right that logically must extend to a woman who ends a pregnancy because of the prospect of an extra finger?”
This is the kind of argument that is very difficult to take head on. And yet, we must. The importance of this article is simply massive because here you have a woman who is demonstrating, movingly, the cognitive dissonance that is at the heart of so much of our contemporary American culture; the cognitive dissonance that wants to say that we believe in human dignity; the cognitive dissonance that is reflected in the moral judgment that it must not be right for a woman to abort two unborn children, for that matter even just one, because of an extra finger and yet on the other hand to go on and state that a woman’s right to abortion—even the woman’s right to abort the child with an extra finger —s simply beyond moral scrutiny and beyond question.
At the end of the day, Jennifer Bartlett, writing this very moving article, does not resolve that cognitive dissonance. She can’t, as a matter fact. In trying to answer the question of how she justifies both of these positions, she says,
“I don’t know the answer, but somehow, I believe the treatment I received as a disabled woman who chose to conceive — the disrespect, the testing, the constant questioning of my capacity to give birth and to be a mother — and my response to it fit into this equation.”
Now it’s not my judgment or even our judgment that she fails to resolve this cognitive dissonance. It is her own judgment that ultimately she fails to do so. She is merely as she writes here living with the tension of asserting both principles.
But this is where the biblical worldview reminds us that cognitive dissonance is the diagnosis of a problem. A contradiction is not to be embraced by Christians, but rather on biblical terms to be resolved, or at least to resolve it as best we can given the Christian moral reasoning that comes from Scripture.
To state the matter, clearly this kind of cognitive dissonance cannot emerge from biblical Christianity, not this form, because the Bible is so clear about the sanctity of every single human life in every condition at every stage of development. And thus human dignity isn’t rooted merely in our own moral judgment that somehow it would be wrong to terminate pregnancies simply because the child has an extra finger. The biblical worldview makes clear that it is objectively wrong, indeed that it is objectively homicide to kill an unborn child voluntarily, intentionally, much less to kill an unborn child merely for the reason that it does not meet our expected standards.
Another insight from this article is the necessity of understanding the most fundamental moral judgments, the moral judgments that have to come prior to other moral judgments. In this case, the cognitive dissonance between a woman’s right to an abortion and a baby’s right to live is resolved mostly in favor of the woman’s right to choose. That’s evidence of the fact that everyone actually operates on a hierarchy of moral values. But that’s where the biblical worldview absolutely turns that equation on its head. It will be the sanctity of human life that would be fundamental, and our understanding of human liberty, everyone’s human liberty, would have to be derived from the sanctity of human life which is, of course, biblically rooted in our understanding that life is not an accident, but rather it is the gift of a sovereign gracious Creator.
It is clear that every worldview includes some nonnegotiable moral absolutes. In an article dealing with the value of human life and the question of rights, in this case characterized as women’s rights, what’s most troubling is that these are presented as if they are equal. But as the story unfolds, it’s clear that it is liberty that takes the value over life. That is most clear in the sentence in which Jennifer Bartlett writes the one major statement of moral absolutes found in the entire article. She says,
“The right to legal and safe abortion is a core element of American feminism and the struggle for women’s rights.”
Reading this article, we are reminded of the chilling reality that for millions and millions of Americans that is even now there one moral absolute.
One final insight from this article: we’re talking here about the New York Times, perhaps this nation’s newspaper of record, a very liberal newspaper, especially on the issue of abortion. And in recent days this single newspaper has run numerous articles on the issue of abortion, several of them as matter of fact on the newspaper’s opinion page. Routinely now so long after the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion back in 1973, those of us who contend for the sanctity of human life are asked by those on the left why we can’t just get over the question. But of course we can’t just get over the question. But the interesting thing about the appearance of all of these articles indicates that the secular left actually can’t just get over the question of abortion either. They must scratch their heads in perplexity as to why. For those who operate from a biblical worldview understand why.
Scouting story #1: If Boy Scouts admit girls who identity as girls, does "Boy" mean anything anymore?
Next, we look at another of the front-lines, indeed two of those front-lines, in terms of our ever-expanding revolution in terms of sexuality and morality. Going back in American history now over a century, two of the most venerable organizations have been the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts. But as we have seen, both of these organizations, long bastions of the very center of American culture, have been under sustained pressure to change their moral perspectives. And as we’ve seen the Girl Scouts did so rather early on. Back in the 1970s and 80s, the Girl Scouts began to identify with the worldview of American feminism in ways that were first quite subtle but now have become quite apparent. As a matter of fact, not only have the Girl Scouts become ambassadors of a sort for the moral revolution, but they have also changed their policies. They did so years ago in terms of LGBT issues.
More recently, the Boy Scouts changed their own positions; first, changing their long-standing policy that they had previously defended all the way, successfully, we note, to the United States Supreme Court. They changed their policy concerning membership in the Boy Scouts to include openly gay scouts, and even more recently, under the same pressure, they have changed their policies to accept openly gay scout leaders. What they haven’t changed is the definition of a Boy Scout as a boy. Now it’s getting complicated to be sure because following in the footsteps of the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts more recently announced that they will accept transgender scouts, but the scouts have to at least identify as a boy. That is, to say the least, problematic enough, but that’s not enough for the moral revolutionaries.
Several major media in recent weeks have run stories concerning the fact that the Boy Scouts of America are now being called upon to eliminate any necessity whatsoever of identifying as a boy, much less actually being one. As David Crary of the Associated Press reports,
“After many years of divisiveness, the Boy Scouts of America have opened their ranks to gay and transgender boys. Yet a different membership dispute persists: a long-shot campaign to let girls join the BSA so they have a chance to earn the prestigious status of Eagle Scout.”
According to Crary, just after the Boy Scouts of America announced it would admit transgender boys, “the National Organization for Women issued a statement urging the 106-year-old youth organization to allow girls to join as well.”
NOW President Terry O’Neill said,
“Women can now hold all combat roles in the military, and women have broken many glass ceilings at the top levels of government, business, academia and entertainment. It’s long past due that girls have equal opportunities in Scouting.”
At the center of this particular headline is a young person, a girl who actually also is a girl and identifies as a girl, who is now demanding that, as a girl, she be admitted to the Boy Scouts. Her name is Sydney Ireland. She’s supported by her father, an attorney named Gary Ireland. They’ve been campaigning together that she be allowed to join the Boy Scouts, which her brother Brian has belonged to for about 10 years. According to the Associated Press report,
“Among other initiatives, Sydney has posted a petition on Change.org and appeared in an online video that has attracted more than 2.6 million views. Via repeated road trips to London, Ontario, she’s also become a member of Scouts Canada, which has been coed since 1998.”
According to the report, Sydney insists that her quest to join the Boy Scouts does not represent disrespect for the Girl Scouts. But she says,
“The Girl Scouts is great for some people. But the Boy Scouts should allow everyone in. I want that kind of experience.”
Now before going any further into the story, let’s just pause to see where we stand. We now stand at an open declaration made in public by the National Organization for Women that the Boy Scouts of America cease being the Boy Scouts in any meaningful sense whatsoever. We’ve already seen the Boy Scouts of America repeatedly capitulate to the sexual revolution. But the big question now is whether they’ve got to capitulate all the way to ceasing to being the Boy Scouts. Arguably, they have already accepted the poison pill of that inevitable outcome. Once they began to accept openly gay scouts and then transgender scouts, the reality is that even right now you can’t count on the Boy Scouts of America as including only boys. The interesting policy line right now is that the Boy Scouts require membership to be limited to boys or those who identify as boys.
The young person at the center of this article identifies as a girl. That makes her ineligible for membership in the Boy Scouts. What we’re watching here is the absolute deep dive into incoherence and confusion that comes hand-in-hand with the sexual revolution, especially the “T” in the LGBTQ equation. The transgender claim is that gender identity is simply a matter of one’s own self-consciousness and has to be respected by the entire society in terms of how the individual perceives him or herself at that particular moment. But that, we need to know, came after and was possible only after the sustained effort to try to break down every meaningful distinction between male and female, man and woman, boy and girl. We simply have to recognize that at this point in the sexual revolution it doesn’t make sense to celebrate or perhaps even to allow an organization to continue with respect that will be known as the Boy Scouts of America or the “boy” anything or the “girl” anything.
Scouting story #2: As Girl Scouts march ideologically leftward, many Christian groups are cutting ties
And that leads us to a final story, this not about the Boy Scouts but the Girl Scouts. NPR’s headline,
“Kansas City Archdiocese Cutting Ties With Girl Scouts Over ‘Troubling Trends’”
Merrit Kennedy is the reporter. This is a story that has been picked up by many others in the media as well. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kansas City released a statement in recent days saying,
“To follow Jesus and his Gospel will often require us to be counter-cultural. With the promotion by Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) of programs and materials reflective of many of the troubling trends in our secular culture, they are no longer a compatible partner in helping us form young women with the virtues and values of the Gospel.”
For similar reasons, many evangelical congregations have over the last several years begun cutting their ties with the Girl Scouts. And furthermore, many Christian parents have been making the very same determination. But the interesting thing about the media response in this announcement by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kansas City is that many in the cultural elites find themselves absolutely perplexed anyone would for any reason oppose the ideological realignment of the Girl Scouts.
Margot Cleveland, a lawyer, a CPA, an adjunct professor for the University of Notre Dame, writing at The Federalist, documents the fact that the Girl Scouts over the last several decades have also been moving in a direction that is decidedly not only pro-feminist in terms of ideology but also pro-abortion often packaged, of course, as reproductive choice.
In conclusion, this is where Christians have to understand that as we seek to live and to think out of a biblical worldview, we come to understand that the very words boy and girl or male and female are stark reminders of a reality, a reality that simply cannot be linguistically or even philosophically negotiated away. One of the things we see here is the continuing testimony to truth that is seen even in the name of the organization known as the Boy Scouts of America. They may indeed have been successively abandoning their principles, but the name still involves the truth claim. And that’s perhaps what we need to notice. We’ve now progressed so far in this moral revolution that the very words boys and girls are in effect fighting words. We used to live in a society in which the organizations known as the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts made sense. It’s very sad to know that we increasingly live in a time and in a society where those very words no longer make sense.