On Choosing Your Adopted Child First: the Abby Johnson Dilemma

Have you ever wondered what goes through the mind of an abortion worker as they push through angry protesters to clock in for another day of work at a clinic? From accounts that I've read, they're dedicated to their jobs. They believe in the health care services that they provide to their patients. But the screaming and cursing; the threats that they receive. These factors may also play a role.

People who go through “great pain, discomfort, effort, or embarrassment” to accomplish something will be happier with it than if the experience had been easy, effortless, and pain-free (cite, page 18 on Kindle). This was first discovered by Elliott Aronson, a student and contemporary of Leon Festinger. Most people who have had an introductory level education into behavioral science may be surprised to learn this cognitivist twist. That a punishment, such as screaming at someone entering their workplace, could have a better chance of reinforcing their job choice than discouraging it. 

It seems like Abby Johnson knew this, though. On one of Abby's websites, a former clinic worker described the first time she saw Abby. This worker pushed through the crowd of screaming protesters she'd grown accustomed to. She saw Abby standing there, quietly smiling and holding a sign. Instead of calling the clinic worker a “murderer,” Abby's sign simply said, “No one grows up wanting to be an abortion worker.” Amidst all of the regular occurrences of enduring insults and feeling unsafe - clinic workers could find an alternative narrative in Abby's sign. The sign, and her smile, offered the opportunity to feel more understood. 

Maybe, the sign was more than that, though. Thinking of it from that cognitive perspective, perhaps it was more than just a rewarding experience of meeting a kinder person. It was both the creation of and a relief from cognitive dissonance. According to the former worker’s very own words, Abby defied the stereotype of a clinic protester. This worker couldn’t reject Abby's bids for her attention for the same reasons that she walked past other demonstrators so many times before. And that’s what got her to consider Abby's unique message. This story can be found on the website of Abby's non-profit, And Then There Were None.

In this instance, it seemed like Abby knew what she was doing. She knew how to get people to change their minds about something and to see her pro-life point of view. Perhaps she was aware of how to use cognitive dissonance in this way, to radically change someone's mind. However, it's also true that being aware of how cognitive dissonance works does not mean those who are aware are therefore entirely impervious to its effects.

This is where I arrive to the point of Abby's activism journey that I still don't get. I don't understand how Abby moved from knowing she could change minds with kindness to her new approach of being "politely rude." After all, that is the actual name of her popular podcast. 

That is to say, the Abby on social media seems a lot different than the Abby smiling on the picket line. She seems to now be a person who disengages with someone if they so much as dislike or disagree with what she says. With the increasing publicity since her RNC speech, both respectful dissent and insults have been directed her way. Yet she has blocked insults and respectful critique alike and rarely responds. In fact, I heard from several colleagues that they were blocked by Abby simply for offering dialogue of respectful dissent of her opinions.

Not only has Abby disengaged from critique, has moved outside of her specific area of interest as a former Planned Parenthood director decrying abortion. She uses her social media to post what could very well be described as propaganda. Her posts mock professional athletes for taking a stand against racism. More specifically, she told NBA players that no one cared what they thought. She paid no respects to Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, upon her death. She instead used it as a opportunity to claim that Ginsburg used her career to advocate for children to die. In another post, Abby claimed that COVID19 deaths were "EXTREMELY low" and were a conspiracy or sorts to keep people out of churches. 

And, as I wrote before, she used her black transracially adopted son as a talking point in a video as to why police racial profiling is ok. She stated, without hesitation, that it's OK for police to be more suspicious around her son because black men are more violent than white men.

Let me be clear about what I mean by "propaganda." I don't intend to be hyperbolic simply to prove a point. According to the dictionary, propaganda is "information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc." (cite). This means, it doesn't matter if what is said is true, if it furthers a political cause.

As I discussed in my last blog post, her claims about violence being caused by being black is a debunked viewpoint borrowed from biological essentialism. Another post of hers claimed that Democrats historically supported slavery. Bui, it neglected to mention that the platform switch between parties occurred after the Civil War (cite). Despite how misleadingly low the 99% survival rate appears, COVID19 is said to currently be the third leading cause of death in the United States (cite).

Another of Abby's Instagram posts framed Ginsburg as having a sort of malice towards babies rather than noting her advocacy for women. In reality, it was absolutely women for whom Ginsburg fought. In the 1970's, Air Force Captain, Susan Struck, was told she must abort her pregnancy or be immediately discharged from her military position. Ginsburg became her lawyer and fought for Struck's right to choose to keep both her job and her pregnancy (cite).

All of these posts can be found on Abby's Instagram profile. I point them out because nothing about being pro-life demands that someone also disagree with the NBA's activism, or to dislike Democrats, or to diminish the effects of COVID19. Nothing about being pro-life means that someone must hold sociologically disputed views on race. Abby arguably does this because she is unilaterally aligned with Trump. Ostensibly, this is because of his promises to nominate justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade (cite).

And again, this Abby is a far cry from the Abby smiling warmly in front of an abortion clinic.

This brings me to what cognitive psychologists call "the pyramid of choice" (cite). This "pyramid" is described in the book, "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)," by Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson. According to these cognitive psychologists, the way someone resolves one ethical dilemma primes them for how they will resolve future ethical dilemmas. It's not a slippery slope. Rather, each time a person goes against their values and self-justifies their choice to do so, it becomes increasingly easier to do so for future decisions. And, we conjure the image of a pyramid when this person looks back and sees how far they have moved from their original values or ways of behaving after the first time they self-justified a choice.

Tavris and Aronson gave an example of two students who take a test and know they will fail. Both students may value honesty. In the example, one student opted to cheat and therefore choose the good grade over being honest. The other student opted to fail and therefore choose honesty over a good grade. The student who cheated self-justified their choice by deciding that those who don't cheat are self-righteous. The student who failed further hardened in their decision never to cheat. They formed opinions that those who cheat lack integrity and morals. When either one of these students is soon faced again with a decision to choose honesty or another option, they are now in a different place to do so than they were before taking that test.

To be transparent, I don't know if Abby said what she did about race, profiling, and her son because she went down her own pyramid of choice. I'm not privy to her mind to know if something like supporting Trump because he wants to overturn Roe led to the video she posted about police brutality and her black son. My concern is that other prolife parents could - especially parents of transracially adopted black children. Its my hope to reach them so that they do not.

I can imagine the discomfort of being a pro-life parent to a child of color in this election. They must decide if they will vote for a pro-life candidate whom, among other things, is outspoken against anti-racist education (cite) and misrepresents police reform (cite). Even though I was not transracially adopted, I watched my adoptive father go through this. A life-long Republican and pro-life advocate, my dad could not stomach the conflicts this current administration created with his other values. He managed this by changing parties.

This election isn't the only opportunity there is to ensure that our values remain protective of adopted and fostered children. Choosing children first, particularly our own children who are our responsibility to protect, is a daily practice. How do to that involves developing a cognitive skill set for parents to challenge themselves before making choices. The idea of choosing your child first is the very first cognitive skill I aim to impart here. A parent simply asking themselves, "is this opinion, vote, or action putting my child first?" is an excellent place to start.

Tavris and Aronson offered insight about how to handle a friend or a public figure speaking or acting in ways that challenge our values (cite). We are usually inclined to "cancel" the person outright - or - to convince ourselves that they must have meant something else. Or, we may even try to convince ourselves that we agree with what they said. As an alternative, and something I covered on my Instagram microblog, parents can follow these steps*:
  1. Love the friend or otherwise appreciate the humanity of the person in question.
  2. Condemn the mistake that they made.
  3. Expect accountability from this person.
  4. Allow yourself time to decide if new boundaries are needed.
What about when we are the person who made a mistake? Maybe as a parent someone said something in front of their child that they shouldn't have. Maybe a parent has views that they now realize were not supportive of their child. Tavris and Aronson cover this too in a chapter of their book they call "Letting go and Owning up." Here are some steps that I extracted from this chapter.
  1. Learn to recognize when we are in a state of dissonance. This is a feeling of discomfort that arises when our behavior or thoughts are in conflict with our values.
  2. Deal with how dissonance makes us feel without making impulsive choices or self-justifying our behavior to feel better.
  3. Own up to mistakes. Admit that we made a mistake. Accept responsibility.
  4. Adjust accordingly. Decide if our values need to change or if our words and behavior need to change to align with our values.
No one is immune to mistakes or faulty viewpoints. No one is a perfect parent. I firmly believe (or at least hope) that most parents out there would take as many opportunities as they could to choose their children first. Every parent should have as many tools as possible to ensure that choosing their children first is always something they know how to do. Of course, cognitive science is just one tool. And this cognitive analysis I've written here is just one way to analyze parenting in the midst of political turmoil. For Abby Johnson - I don't think it's too late for her to change. I think her son is worthy of that.

When my dad changed political parties in response to value conflicts with the current Republican representation, I felt a familiar emotion inside my chest. I was a little girl, the last time I felt this way. I had spent years riding around in the car with my dad, listening to Rush Limbaugh. On one such car trip, I said to him, "Daddy, why does Rush hate girls so much?" I don't remember much of what I made of Limbaugh as a little girl. But I remember feeling uncomfortable by so many of the things he said. 

My dad never answered. Instead, he turned the dial to Cool 98.3 - our favorite oldies station. My dad never listened to Rush Limbaugh again. And that feeling I got? It was the feeling of safety and validation. I knew my dad had chosen me first. I think every child is worthy of that.