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
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.
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.