By Jonathon Van Maren
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor and overnight YouTube sensation, is perhaps one of the most interesting commentators to surface in the past decade. His opinions are in such high demand these days that I’m not sure how he gets any sleep. Due to his wide-ranging fields of study, young men especially want to know what Dr. Peterson thinks of pretty much everything—and many of them take his responses very, very seriously.
That’s why I wondered for some time what his opinion on abortion was. Peterson has been pretty open about the impact of the birth control pill—separating sex from reproduction—on society, has condemned the use of pornography as very unhealthy, and scorned the idea that polyamory is a viable arrangement. But on abortion, he stayed largely silent—although he almost always responded when I fired questions at him on Twitter, he ignored my questions on pre-born human rights.
When someone finally asked him the question at one of his lectures, it was obvious that he’d been avoiding it. He chuckled ruefully, prompting laughter from the audience, shaking his head and saying “Thank you, thank you,” with gentle sarcasm. Then he stopped with a long, thoughtful pause.
“Okay, so the first question is do I have an answer for that that’s a good enough answer that’s a good enough answer to actually reveal,” he responded. “No, I don’t, but I’ll flail about a little around it. Abortion is clearly wrong. I don’t think anyone debates that. You wouldn’t recommend that someone you love have one.”
I see what he’s driving at, and he’s both right and wrong. What he means when he says that nobody debates whether abortion is wrong, I think, is that most people instinctively recognize that there’s something wrong with it. Obviously, he knows that people do debate it, which is why he was so hesitant to enter into the fray himself. And plenty of people do recommend that people they love get an abortion—especially parents and significant others, who see children as a burden rather than as a blessing.
“Having clarified that,” he went on, “that mere statement doesn’t eliminate the complexity of the statement. The first question is, ‘Should everything wrong be illegal?’ That’s a tough question. Everything that’s wrong isn’t illegal. Then there’s the additional complication of the difference let’s say in gravity regarding the problem in relationship to men and women. And we don’t know how to deal with that.”
Again, I suspect Peterson is vacillating here because his pro-life position is substantially firmer than he wants to admit. Not everything that is wrong should be illegal—everyone agrees with that. It depends on what we are talking about, specifically. In the case of abortion, we’re talking about the violent surgical destruction of a developing human being, one that society has an existential interest in protecting. That makes abortion different than, say, cheating on your spouse.
“There’s something that Leonard Cohen once said,” Peterson reflected, “he said that in a massacre, there’s no decent place to stand. And what he meant by that is sometimes, you’re aware [that] there is no good decision left. No matter what you do, it’s wrong. So then the question is, how did you get there? Let’s say you’re in a position where you’re inclined to seek an abortion. The question is, how did you get there? Now, we’ve got a lot to straighten out about the sexual relationships in the modern world. They’re bent and warped and demented out of shape. One of the things that I see with young people, for example, is that they will engage in sexual acts with one another that they would not talk to about one another…It seems to me that if you’re willing to engage in a sexual act with someone with whom you would not discuss that act, you probably put the cart before the horse.”
He went on: “So the discussion regarding the legality of abortion is nested inside a larger discussion about the morality of abortion and that’s nested inside a larger discussion about the proper place of sexuality in human behavior. And to me, that’s the level at which the problem needs to be addressed.”
Dr. Peterson’s views on this are far more sophisticated than he lets on—his response doesn’t exactly seem like “flailing.” He’s also correct that our culture’s careless attitude towards sexual relations has created a scenario in which the abortion industry essentially functions as backup contraception, because people don’t see procreation as one of the primary roles of sex in the first place. But in the meantime, abortion, while a symptom of a sexually broken culture, should still be dealt with as a fundamental human rights issue—no human being should be killed for careless attitudes prevalent in the culture.
Dr. Peterson concluded his thoughts by noting, quite accurately, that, “I think the eternal debate about abortion, horrible as it is, is the surface manifestation of a much deeper problem,” and that the cultural mess surrounding sexuality and marriage will probably have to be sorted out before any progress can be made in criminalizing abortion.
And again, I think Dr. Peterson is both right and wrong at the same time. There is an enormous amount of work to be done surrounding the mess that our society has made of sexuality and relationships, a mess that is celebrated as liberation. But especially in the United States, the number of people who identify as pro-life has steadily climbed, and many are recognizing that abortion is an issue of human rights: Human beings have human rights, human rights begin when the human being begins, and science tells us when a new human life begins.
We’ve made a mess of a lot of things. But children don’t need to die while we figure everything out.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.