[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.