Jordan Peterson is Wrong About Abortion

Jordan Peterson is Wrong About Abortion January 2, 2019
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore
[Update, 01/04/19: Since my publishing this, an interview from June has come to my attention where Peterson unpacks his thoughts on this issue in slightly more depth than I’d heard before, with a focus on the legislative situation in Canada. The host asks him if there’s a way for some Canadian politician/party to “recapture the center” by focusing on sex-selective abortion, abortion past age of viability, etc. You can watch his answer from minute 27 to about minute 32. He starts off strong by encouraging conservatives to “beat the drum hard” on marriage and the nuclear family so that fewer couples will be in a position to look for an abortion. Unfortunately it wanders downhill from there, though he does say the decision should not be left to the courts (true, and true here as well) and makes the obvious comment that there’s something inconsistent about advocating against sex-selective abortion while being generally pro-choice. He also vaguely recommends polling people and going with majority rule. While I’m sure he’s right that the majority of people would be uncomfortable with abortion at 9 months, why would it matter if the majority was not uncomfortable with abortion at 3 months, any more than it would have mattered if the majority of Germans in 1940 were comfortable with gassing Jews? This kind of centrist rhetoric always crumbles at a touch. But in any case, the clip is still helpful for readers looking to get a more fleshed-out take from Peterson here.]


Love him or hate him, nobody can deny that the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson was one of the defining cultural phenomena of 2018. Liberals roared in outrage as he turned over the tables in their temples of political correctness, while conservatives hailed him as a new ally. Various conservative pundits wrote in praise of his bold stance on free speech, his response to our culture’s hunger for meaning and truth, and his respect for the Judeo-Christian values that anchor Western Civilization.

And yet, when it comes to social questions that have historically defined the divide between conservative and liberal, like abortion rights and gay marriage, Peterson has been relatively muted. No doubt this has been a conscious choice on his part. As a pragmatist, he calculates that there is little benefit in creating controversy over an issue where the ship of culture has already sailed. Nevertheless, he has not been able to escape these issues entirely.

Peterson was first publicly caught off guard by the abortion question in a Q & A after one of his biblical lectures in 2017. In the clip, available here, he pauses and considers not answering the question at all, admitting with his characteristic humility that his position is not well thought-out. Yet he goes on to say that although “abortion is clearly wrong,” the question of its legality is “the wrong question to ask,” because that discussion is “nested” inside a larger discussion about sexual morality.

He seems to have gained confidence since then. A much larger audience heard him voluntarily make this same case for the first time in two recent appearances, once in his Femsplainers interview with Christina Hoff Sommers and again backstage with Breitbart, Charlie Kirk and Donald Trump, Jr. Behind closed doors in talks with Republican thinkers in DC, he argued that since “fifty problems” have already emerged by the time a woman is seeking abortion, our time would be best served by backing up and collectively having the conversation about those problems, instead of arguing about whether abortion should be legal. While the partisan divide over abortion may be as deep as ever for the foreseeable future, perhaps some bipartisan consensus could be formed when it comes to the chaos of sexual relations between men and women in our current cultural landscape.

Nobody would argue with Dr. Peterson that a string of terrible choices lies behind every woman’s choice to abort. Nor would anybody dispute the statement that sexual relations between men and women are in a parlous state. In decrying casual sex, pornography, and loose divorce laws, Peterson is to be commended for standing in the path of the sexual revolution and crying “Stop!” Such conversations are certainly long overdue, though it is doubtful that they will occur in the productive bipartisan way Peterson naively envisions as long as the left holds the reins of cultural power. The mere fact that the left is suddenly upset with what the sexual revolution has wrought is no guarantee that they will learn from history.

But putting aside Peterson’s naivete on this point, are any of these discussions really relevant to the question of whether abortion should be legal? Sociologically speaking, he may be right that the abortion discussion is nested inside of them. But logically and morally speaking, he could not be more wrong. If a woman found herself contemplating the murder of her 1-month-old, the question of whether it should be legal for someone to smother it with a pillow can be cogently and simply answered “No,” regardless of how she got to that place. The same would have been true one month earlier, or two, or three, or six. Of course, we do not have such conversations about infanticide. But this is only because our culture has collectively decided that this uncomplicated question is fraught with complication when the baby is in the womb.

This decades-long process of cultural conditioning has left many ordinary, non-psychopathic people in a state of profound ambivalence, including Dr. Peterson. His discomfort is palpable in the old Q & A clip. He winces and shakes his head, sardonically saying “Thank you” to the questioner. He doesn’t think anybody “would dispute” his statement that abortion is wrong. “You wouldn’t recommend someone you love have one,” he says slowly, as if speaking of an unspeakable horror. But then again, he asks, should everything wrong be illegal? This question is, of course, also beside the point. To say that not everything wrong should be illegal is trivially true. To say that abortion is the sort of wrong thing that should be legal is perniciously false.

Some will counter that Peterson has never put himself forward as any kind of political activist, let alone a conservative one. Moreover, when he does approach questions of American politics, he approaches them from a Canadian perspective. We cannot expect him to be invested in them as we would expect from an American thinker.

Perhaps a certain amount of Canadian ignorance on the topic of legalized abortion in the states can be forgiven. Nevertheless, if Peterson is going to begin publicly speaking into this topic with an opinion about the best practical way forward, it behooves him to familiarize himself with the practical gains of the American pro-life movement.

For one thing, he should know that even small legal limits on Roe such as imposing a waiting period, requiring that mothers see an ultrasound, or requiring parental permission have effected observable change. Indeed, abortion activists are loudly opposed even to these minor regulations, precisely because they know they act as effective barriers, however subtle. Anyone who has spent time with desperate pregnant women knows they are often intensely conflicted, and small things can sway them one way or the other. Being forced to slow down and think, or to see an image of their child on a screen, has tilted many women towards the choice to keep the child. Practically speaking, if reducing abortions is his concern, Peterson should see these things as positive developments.

Peterson should also consider how many American women who would not have flown out of the country pre-Roe have been eased into the choice by the presence of a friendly, legal clinic down the street. And sometimes not eased, but coerced. Perhaps in his world, people don’t recommend that their loved ones have abortions. In the real world, this happens with depressing regularity, just as in the real world, people loudly and regularly dispute the idea that abortion is wrong. The heart of the bodily autonomy argument is that the interests of the woman are paramount. Of course, one need only glance at the suicide statistics among post-abortive mothers to see that this is a cruel jest. As a clinician who cares about women’s physical and mental well-being, Peterson would do well to file these stats away as well.

Still, post-Roe, we do not operate under illusions of bringing a sea-change to the broader political landscape on this issue. We who are pro-life and American know full well that we climb uphill, and have climbed uphill for lo these many decades. Even as we rejoice every time another clinic shuts down, or a modest regulation saves another life, it can feel like a drop in the bucket. Some of us still hold out hope for a spectacular SCOTUS reversal. Some of us ceased placing our trust in princes and Supreme Court justices long ago. Still, here we stand. We can do no other.

A wise man once said a culture that doesn’t hold the mother and child as sacred dies. That wise man was Jordan Peterson, in his lecture series on Maps of Meaning. “Obviously!” he says. Why? “Because… obviously!” The image of mother and child must be set before us at all times. It must be held up and revered. It ensures that if we know nothing else, at least we know not to kill mothers and children. Instinctively, we know this. Instinctively, it violates us, he says, and thank God. Indeed.

Jordan Peterson says abortion is wrong. I would like to ask him why. Why does he think it is wrong? What is an abortion? What is the unborn? Mother and child: What does the image mean? Why, as he has suggested, do we treat every child as it were the Savior of the world? And what does it mean when we kill it, as it were the Savior?

Jordan Peterson is a courageous and honorable man, blessed with eloquence and charisma. More importantly, he has been blessed with a tender heart, not only for young men but for children and their mothers. All the more tragic that he is using his now very influential voice to discourage anti-abortion activism. All the more regrettable that he has spent a lifetime studying what happens when individuals do not stand up to legally sanctioned horrors, yet looks away from the greatest legal horror of our time.

When the Nazis were rounding up the Jews, to not take a position was to take a position. When the communists were rounding up the kulaks, to not take a position was to take a position. This, Dr. Peterson knows well, for he has said so often and eloquently. To wake up, to speak the truth, to speak it alone if necessary, is the highest good he can possibly conceive.

I could not agree more. So it is with sorrow and love commingled that I make this appeal to Jordan Peterson: Dr. Peterson, please tell the truth about legalized abortion.

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  • Amen.

    “…should everything wrong be illegal?”

    You would think this sort of dodge would be beneath him, but it’s a common ailment even among the very smart.

  • kyuss

    Jordan Peterson is wrong about pretty much everything.

  • Brian Berneker

    It’s one of those perennial issues that probably isn’t going away any time soon. Most of it is about perception of where the emphasis lies. One camp says it’s about the life of an unborn child, the other about a woman’s biological autonomy from the state. It’s true that they are both related, and the complexity of the issue does carry some nuance, but even if you’re in favor of choice, it’s dishonest to overlook the fact that there is a human being hanging in the balance. Scalia’s analysis on the issue has been very edifying for me on the matter.

  • billwald

    Abortion is not always wrong.

    Old movie from the bad old days about a Catholic mother who was told she would die if she didn’t abort. She died, the kid lived and turned out well. But if she had been my wife, the kid would have died.

  • Gerry Leddy

    I am a man and I shall never have to make the decision about my own body. but here is something i have noted.

    I live in the UK and have observed a church minister who is no longer a member of parliament is anti-abortion. but while he was a member of parliament voted for a weapons system that aborts foetuses from innocent pregnant women by the hundreds if not thousands. when the innocent pregnant woman is vaporized in the nuclear blast , the unborn foetus is aborted. and he is not alone there are scores of so-called Christians who think that is ok. strange how they can express concern over one woman and one foetus, but as a weapon of war flush down the toilet hundreds of mothers and their unborn foetuses.

    Christ taught us – commanded us, to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, how can be obey Christ in this commandment, by aborting their children ?

  • G.S.K. herzak

    Jordan Peterson’s rise show me that white conservatives and whites in general are really messed up and are seeking any hero for their white fears and return to the old world. Trump, Sam Harris, Peterson….white people are getting weird and crazy.

  • Guestie

    What happens to the soul of a deceased fetus?

  • Gary Foster

    The writer does not understand Peterson’s mission. He acknowledges Peterson comes from a Canadian context. That’s a start but Peterson is not about political solutions. He is about the individual person and the community they live in. The obsession with politics has only corrupted “evangelicals”. This writer thinks Evangelicals should be crusaders in search of the use of force (law) to shape the behavior of others. The result of that is a reaction called the culture wars that Christians lost. It was a rout. The real crusade is one person at a time which is what Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated.

  • Julian W

    Look, I agree with your argument, some conservatives are narrowly focused on abortion and neglect other issues of social justice, some of which are feeding into the problem they proport to be concerned about. So yes, I stand with you in calling Christians to be the salt of the earth and the much needed opposition to tyrannical governments, unjust societies and evil war.

    That said, I think there is some hypocrisy in your comment. How can you on one hand care about the injustices of nuclear war in countries far removed from your own, and yet on the other hand dismiss the injustice of abortion of abortion as a decision woman makes over her own body. Couldn’t the conservative you are critiquing here, make the exact same argument about nuclear weapons? Oh its the choice of the nation with the wepons, oh its justified to kill because X. Its the exact same cost benifit analysis.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I’m against the a-bomb, FYI. Anyway, can we stop nose-counting and tu quoqueing and get back to questions of objective right and wrong? That would be awesome.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I’m not proposing a theocracy. I’m proposing a republic where all innocent life is legally protected. That’s very basic. We already have it for innocent lives except the ones who haven’t been born yet.

  • Lacunaria

    There is no moral equivalence between killing murderers, some of whom happen to be pregnant, and specifically targeting and murdering innocent babies. Your moral analogy and compass is off here.

    Love is not pacifism. Love can mean making hard moral decisions, potentially even killing murderers to save innocents. That doesn’t mean you don’t love the murderer. God’s law is a manifestation of love, not a contradiction.

  • Lacunaria

    Yeah, at that point you are just being forced to choose between two innocent lives. Almost no one argues against that, which is why there’s an abortion exception for the health of the mother. What is debated is whether the mental health of the mother can outweigh the life of her child.

  • sdguy

    Well then why on earth do we have discussions concerning anything at all? When in doubt about anything of significance, we can simply turn to YOU to show us the way, since you obviously KNOW everything there is to KNOW about everything there is to KNOW. You’re right-on-the-money about pretty much everything, correct?

  • sdguy

    To paraphrase Twain, are you a really smart guy putting us on, or are you an idiot and actually mean what you say?

  • G.S.K. herzak

    When you white guys gonna grow up and stop worshipping JP, Molyneaux, Truml and every other nutty Prophet to fix your problems? Grow the hell up!

  • kyuss

    why are your panties in such a knot? Because I have a different opinion than you? Time to go back to your safe space, snowflake.

  • >”Nobody would argue with Dr. Peterson that a string of terrible choices lies behind every woman’s choice to abort. Nor would anybody dispute the statement that sexual relations between men and women are in a parlous state.”

    The article is full of these kinds of whoppers, but this here sticks out in particular. It’s this kind of bubble world thinking that is why evangelism is so widely disliked among non-evangelicals. Really? I’m aghast.

    How ignorant does one have to be of regular public opinion here? Huge swaths of the U.S., including myself, would say that the cultural revolution around sex has produced a sea change with the Me Too movement and other causes. Things are better now than they were in the past by wide margins. In terms of abortion, the women who make those choices aren’t evil demons and shouldn’t be treated as monsters to be despised. There isn’t any string of bad choices in the eyes of most U.S. people, who oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.

    It’s also weirdly wrong in an inconsistent fashion. As the author admits later on and also earlier on (!), popularity of an idea doesn’t make it right. Why the author couldn’t have simply stated something like “While most Americans and Canadians disagree with me and Peterson, still ____” and “While the state of sexuality after the cultural revolution is positive for most people, I still _____” I’ve got no idea.

  • >’We already have it for innocent lives except the ones who haven’t been born yet.’

    Uh, no. We don’t. We don’t even come close to that. At the very least recently, the legal immigrants put into cages and separated from their families (despite being innocents who obeyed refugee law to a T) beg to different. So do the LGBT people forced out of the military despite being innocents who did nothing wrong. And that’s just two examples out of countless ones.

  • It should be noted that Christians didn’t lose the culture wars. Evangelicals and fundamentalists lost the culture wars which they fought against other Christians (specifically black Christians, Hispanic Christians, Asian Christians, LGBT Christians, etc) as well as society at large.

  • Indeed.

  • si91

    lol, you’re the only hysterical, crazy one here, herzak, with your hysteria about “Islamophobia” and other such nonsense.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I guess someone forgot to read Genesis 22:10. They also forget that abortion is sanctioned by the bible many times over. Yet somehow its not ok for women to have control of their own bodies. This is why more and more women are single, and likely to remain that way.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    that is a christian thing many times over. Ive seen it over the years, and growing up. I pay attention and i dont excuse it.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Spoken by a possible psychopath.

  • Lacunaria

    How so?

  • San_Ban

    I’d love to know what is this ” string of terrible choices” that Peterson and this author think “lies behind every woman’s choice to abort.” Could it be her consent to sex?

  • A_T_T

    Not to mention how the justice system is rigged against the poor and minorities.

  • Claire

    So you wanna ban breastfeeding?

    That’s weird.

  • Claire

    So it’s ok to murder a baby if you’re targeting the mom?

    lol wow!

  • Claire

    If the mother is innocent, then why is the state allowed to commandeer her body like some kind of criminal?

  • fractal

    What do you wanna bet Peterson has been the cause of several abortions, and knows he would be a terrible hypocrite if he goes too far condemning it?

    All this gnashing of teeth and hand-wringing by Fetus Fetishists would be put to better use by focusing on a different quest—may I suggest y’all try eliminating neural-tube birth defects by making sure every fertile women gets enough folic acid daily?

    Now THAT would make a world of difference and actually save zygotes that are wanted.

  • fractal

    A fetus is no more “innocent” than a cauliflower is; there is no sentience, and therefore no person present.

    I think a fetus is just your imaginary play-mate, one that you can project all your fears of vulnerability and powerlessness onto…

  • fractal

    Fundys won’t touch that issue with a 10′ pole; their books on how to win a pro-life argument tell them it is a losing strategy…

  • fractal

    How many pregnant women are murderers?
    Get real.

  • fractal

    Replicating human DNA is NOT a person.

  • Claire

    You literally are proposing a theocracy.

    Pregnant women are innocent lives, yet you want the government to force them to die or risk death for your religion. You are American ISIS.

  • Claire

    I bet MOST of the male mouthpieces of the Fetus Fetish movement have caused an abortion or two. We know Trump has. We know several “family values” congress critters have. So many men behind pulpits have raped people, I bet they’ve caused a few abortions too. They don’t mind being hypocrites though.

  • fractal

    There is nothing “unjust” about abortion.
    Abortion harms no person.

    Now, if you are that concerned with killing-en-mass, why are you eating meat?
    Do you think living breathing animals don’t want to keep living?
    Do you think animals don’t feel pain and suffer?

  • fractal

    A fetus is not a child.
    When are you nutters going to get that right?

  • Julian W

    I think the child being aborted is at least *potentially* a person, (I wouldn’t want to debate where the line is) and when I end its life, I am ending the life of a person.

    What do you mean by “unjust” here? You would agree, I’m sure, that it would be better if we didn’t have abortions (speaking of a ideal world not a legislated one) and that the choice to have an abortion is not something to be celebrated?

    How do you know I eat meat? I have actually been experimenting with a vegetarian diet recently.

  • fractal

    Potential is not reality.
    End of story, there.

    The root word of “person” is “persona”—the mask of personality.
    It denotes psychological individuation, self-reflective consciousness and an established life trajectory.

    A fetus has none of those qualities.
    A fetus has no personality, no thoughts or opinions—a fetus does not care if it is alive or dead.
    Mostly, a fetus sleeps.

    Hence, the fetus is not a person.

    I certainly celebrated MY abortions!
    Best thing ever.
    Too bad BC doesn’t always work…
    Too bad it isn’t the man getting his urethra reamed out instead…

    If you are “experimenting” with veggie diet, you recently ate meat.
    How do you defend that practice of slaughtering sentient animals?

  • fractal

    I know one politician in particular who caused an abortion—known as an elder statesman in the Rethuglican Party.
    I wish he would hurry up and die, so I can expose him…
    Can’t really do it now because of medical ethics.

  • Claire

    OMG this is someone you know in your personal life?

  • fractal

    I used to work in reproductive health.
    If only we could publish what we know…

  • Claire

    If you worked at a CPC, you could publish everything you know. They aren’t bound by HIPPA

  • fractal

    I was the counselor;

    Booked appointments and talked to women as part of their work-up before procedure.
    Quite confidential and HAIR-RAISING.
    The stories I could tell…

  • fractal

    You should read his comment history!
    He is always like that; bratty and wet behind the ears.

  • fractal

    I think it is a sensible question.
    Interesting that you don’t want to answer it…

  • Lacunaria

    You’re just choosing a different definition. The real question is at what point does a fetus have a right to life?

  • fractal

    Denotations are based on linguistics.
    The linguistics are clear; all you have to do is look at the root word.

    I can’t help it if your ilk doesn’t understand how language works; take English Composition 244 and Biology 101; learn what educated people already know.

    People have rights.
    A fetus is not a person.
    Now, before you go all stupid on me again, please look up the root word of “person”.

  • Lacunaria

    Of course “child” can mean an unborn infant or fetus. Your appeal to root words is endearing but specious.

    What’s worse is that whatever semantics we might use has no bearing on the actual moral dilemma of abortion being discussed here. You are haughtily lobbing linguistic red herrings.

  • fractal

    Your ilk just loves to cause intellectual chaos and muddy the waters by having words mean whatever the heck you feel like they should to win your argument—it is a well-worn propaganda technique of fascism in particular.
    You know it.
    Own it.

    Did you look up the root word of “person”?
    Bet ya didn’t.

    Because if you did, you would know why a fetus could not possibly be a child or a person.
    Willful ignorance is no excuse in this day and age.

  • Lacunaria

    I haven’t even used the word “person” in this thread with you. You keep doubling down on irrational tangents that are also wrong about English semantics. Root words are great, but a word is more than its root word and a human life is a human life regardless of the word we use for it.

    Why don’t you try to actually connect with people and their meaning here rather than badgering them with semantic games? Because I don’t see how to get through to you otherwise. I hope someone else can.

  • fractal

    If people cannot even agree on the meaning of words, they cannot have a rational discussion. It is impossible to discuss abortion without also discussing biology, neurology etc…
    Hence the need to have good definitions of words, so that everyone is on the same page, and knows what they are talking about.

    Interestingly enough, your ilk doesn’t seem to want to know what they are talking about—they just want to throw emotional words around to skew the discourse their way. And when someone objects—have a good whine or tantrum.

    “Personhood” is a great example of a term y’all like to throw around, while not having the slightest notion what it means—“child” is the same.

    Because your ilk don’t want to have a rational discussion—you want to pretend that a fetus is your imaginary playmate, which tells you how much it wants to live, how much pain it feels, how “innocent” it feels, how much it loves Jesus blah, blah, blah…

    A fetus is not sentient.
    A fetus does not CARE whether or not it lives.
    Mostly, a fetus sleeps.

    Stop trying to turn a fetus into your teddy bear.

  • Lacunaria

    People do generally agree on the meaning of these words, as evidenced by the dictionary definitions that I linked. That’s why your root word tangents were so inapt and strange.

    But it’s great that you are finally engaging by arguing that the right to life is based on sentience and caring and not sleeping.

    Those criteria then need their own definitions and objective means of detecting them. And then apply them to other cases for moral consistency.

    For example, would your criteria preserve the right to life for adults in paralysis, a coma, etc.? A fetus can be more responsive to stimuli than adults in those states, yet we wait to see if such adults will come out of it. Why not a fetus? At what point does a fetus meet your criteria and why?

    These are the difficult questions we should wrestle with.

  • fractal

    A fetus is NOT sentient.
    It has no self-reflective consciousness, no established life trajectory, no thoughts, no concerns and no opinion on its own self worth.
    It is replicating human DNA.

    End of story.

    Definitions in the dictionary include “lay” definitions, including slang and connotations the word was never meant to imply.
    When talking biology, medical procedures etc…, it is important to use the most correct term, not the sloppy layman’s misguided interpretations.

    Self reflective consciousness is where it’s at, more so than sentience really.
    Personally I see no reason to keep a human alive that doesn’t have it.
    But not MY CHOICE; it is the choice of that person wishes or their designated guardian and doctor.

    A fetus never meets my criteria.
    It’s response to stimuli is mostly reflexive and it certainly doesn’t have self-reflection.

    Heck, a fetal deer has more sentience by far than a two month old human infant, but we don’t value the fetal deer life.
    So, why should we value a human fetus, if its mother doesn’t?

    What do you think makes Sapiens so much more valuable than animals?

  • Lacunaria

    (1) Ok, self-reflection. How do we objectively demonstrate that?

    (2) A fetus born becomes something that meets your criteria, right? When does that happen?

    (3) Consider a poorly responsive or non-responsive adult human who has the same probability as a fetus of eventually demonstrating self-reflection. What would most people’s wishes be?

    Your questions are excellent and get to the heart of the matter:

    So, why should we value a human fetus, if its mother doesn’t?

    Because its potential is valuable to us — we value that we weren’t killed at our own fetal stage, and we value that we will not be killed if we are again temporarily less responsive like a fetus. Identifying with others is the fundamental basis of morality.

    What do you think makes Sapiens so much more valuable than animals?

    You are right that it is the abilities of rational thought, communication, cooperation, etc. that gives us greater value, but even the strong potential for those abilities also establishes far greater value than even the wisest, most self-reflective deer.