Proponents of legislation were successful because they told simple stories

We owe the brave few so much more than we can ever repay

Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton suggested thoughtful amendments but the simple story had already won. Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton suggested thoughtful amendments but the simple story had already won. Photograph: Eric Luke


This is a truly devastating moment. Why was so much evidence that undermined the rationale for abortion legislation so roundly ignored? Miriam Lord’s almost throwaway comment on July 2nd provides clues. She wrote: “One of the most striking aspects of the debate was how proponents of the Bill spoke in simple terms while those against bolstered their arguments with liberal references to academic studies drawn from universities all around the world.”

Pro-legislation advocates spoke in simple terms, while the others presented evidence. For those familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality and political psychology, or with that of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in economics, it makes great sense why the simple approach succeeded.

Haidt explains that while we think we are rational beings, in fact, we make decisions mostly based on emotions and gut reactions, and only later, if pressed, produce rationalisations. He uses the image of an elephant and a rider – the rider thinks he is in charge, but at best, he only steers the elephant, usually in a direction the elephant wants to go.

Kahneman has a similar image, where System 1 refers to “rules of thumb” that we use to navigate, while System 2 describes the energy-sapping process of thinking deeply. The lightning quick intuitions of the elephant or System 1 mostly work well. But when they go wrong, as in the economic crash, the results can be catastrophic.

Legislation proponents were successful because they told simple stories. The most important one was perfectly summed up by Billy Kelleher, TD: If it is plausible that someone would take his or her life due to cyberbullying, it is plausible that a woman could be so distressed by a pregnancy that she would take her life. Therefore, we must legislate for suicide.

Extreme stress
It is a powerful story that appeals to our gut instincts. It is also a dangerous story, because it normalises suicide as a response to extreme stress. It presents the only solution to suicidal ideation as either taking one life or two. Time spent in System 2 would show that there are far better options.

Lucinda Creighton’s thoughtful amendments described those alternatives, but the simple story had already won.

The same principle operated among psychiatrists, where there were two basic views. One held that abortion could never be considered a treatment for suicidal ideation, and presented “liberal references to academic studies” that showed abortion had no positive impact on mental health. Both sides agreed that there was no statistical evidence that abortion helped suicidal ideation, because such research would be unethical. However, according to pro-legislation psychiatrists, there was clinical evidence (that is, from direct observation of patients) of a small subset of women who were suicidal because of pregnancy, and removing that stress would remove the suicidal ideation. No studies, no reviews, just painting pictures that chimed with conventional wisdom.

In short, this approach relied on, “trust me, I’m a doctor”. It worked. Note which doctors were quoted by pro-legislation politicians or once-wavering TDs. This is called the “halo” effect, a cognitive bias based on positive evaluation of a single trait.

Halo effect
So why didn’t the other highly qualified – and more numerous – doctors who disagreed have a similar halo effect? It cannot be unrelated to the fact, for example, that when pro-life people presented compelling new evidence, media people contacted the original researcher in New Zealand in a failed attempt to prove the pro-life people wrong. But did the most influential media people ever ask pro-legislation psychiatrists – why are you promoting as treatment something for which there is no evidence of benefit? And which takes human life?

Anti-abortion people are subject to the reverse, or negative halo effect in most media. It is not a conspiracy – such judgments are completely unconscious, and take a great deal of energy-intensive thinking to overcome.

There were other simple stories, too, such as the Supreme Court has already rendered abortion on the grounds of suicide legal , and we are just regulating it. Would Martin Luther King have accepted that argument about segregation – the Supreme Court says it’s right? Would he have called off the march from Selma to Montgomery forthwith?

We rely on our media and our politicians to help us discern when a simple story will serve us well, and when it will be catastrophic. We could lose heart, were it not for the courageous few who refused to buy the simple story, and were prepared to pay the price, or those who challenged a reluctant leader to provide a free vote.

(Who would have guessed that Sinn Féin would be more tolerant than Fine Gael? And that Labour don’t do conscience, only technical mistakes?)

We owe the brave few so much more than we can ever repay. The fact that there are so few explains much about why we are exporting our young, cutting back on special needs assistants, and still treating asylum seekers despicably.

It is because we bought another, but not unrelated simple story – that it is wiser not to challenge the powerful, but perfectly fine to crush those without power.

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