Abortion Rhetoric, “Baby Killers,” and the Horns Effect (A Year of #AssertiveSpirituality Part 1)

Abortion Rhetoric, “Baby Killers,” and the Horns Effect (A Year of #AssertiveSpirituality Part 1)

NOTE 9/4/2021: Since the blindingly restrictive Texas abortion law just passed, I’m reposting this article, most of which still holds. But please note that it was written during the last US presidential administration, so when it refers to the current head of the administration it is NOT referring to Biden but the former guy. It also refers to the specifics of some of the current abortion bills rather than the Texas one. But, yeah, all this stuff is sadly still going on, even though we’re far past the first anniversary of the AS project (deep sigh)….

In this article I plan to start my “Year of #AssertiveSpirituality” series by discussing a few of the reasons it’s so hard to have a reasonable problem-solving discussion about how to reduce and care for women with unwanted pregnancies in this country. Often, this issue gets classed as a battle between those who insist on making abortion illegal and those who advocate for other solutions. In this article I plan to unpack how that works from a communication perspective, as well as how that has created the current religio-political schisms in the US and why I believe we need to knock these “halo effects” and “horns effects” webs down.

I know this is a long read. Thanks for sticking with me to unpack the nuance.

To be honest: it’s felt terribly inconvenient to have these national debates about abortion legislation come into the end of my teaching semester. See, I’m actually human like everyone else. That means when I get tired and stressed out, I have a harder time wading into and managing fierce debates. And this topic is one of the fiercest, if not the actually fiercest, fight we have going on in the religio-political landscape in today’s US.

Interestingly, those trying to engage in the kind of unhealthy rhetoric I’m outlining below often, quite predictably, too often seem to think I have unlimited time and energy for these debates. I’ve seen this repeatedly over the past year–how these effects too often lead to the dehumanization of the person seen as the opposition. As you’ll see, that’s just one of the negative effects of the rhetoric I’m about to discuss. But it is a key one.

Reflecting Over a Year of #AssertiveSpirituality

Despite my complaints about timing, though, I actually see this issue as a way to sum up so much I’ve been musing over on the blog over the last year. So I do find it appropriate that this issue should meld with and begin my year in review thoughts.

My Experience with Abortion Rhetoric

See, as I’ve said before, while I grew up in a moderate denomination in the Midwest US, I also grew up with white Evangelical pop culture artifacts and communications. These things—the books and radio stations—acculturated me into the dominant subculture in which abortion was *the* key single issue you absolutely voted about, no matter what.

That means I am thoroughly aware of the level of emotion that has been built up in this subculture about this particular issue over decades and decades. If you are not from that subculture, you may need to know that. If you did, well, you know what I’m talking about.

So Many Emotions and Identity Issues Here

It’s a super important point: for decades and decades in the US, all of the questions around moral purity have been built up in white Evangelicalism most strongly around the abortion issue specifically (also LGBTQ+ issues and other “family values” rhetoric, as I discussed here, here and here—but I’m setting those other questions temporarily aside in this article).

In other words, for many (not all) white Evangelicals, the biggest “god term” that this group generally feels the need to defend at all costs is “the life of the unborn.”

(Note: When I use the term “White Evangelicals (as I did here and here), I use this term to define a cultural group that is distinct from the religio-political approach taken by POC Evangelicals.)

Defining “God Terms” and “Devil Terms”

Here, as I have elsewhere (there’s a whole series! Look back starting here!), I use the term “god term” in the rhetorical sense to mean something to be defended at all costs. I’ve been using “devil term” as its opposite, which means something to be fought at all costs.

A Caveat

I am aware that quite a few people ARE what I call broadly pro-life while also believing life begins at conception, and others have a wide variety of complex views surrounding this issue. Those positions are not the ones that I’m describing below.

Narrowing In to Discuss Narrowly “Pro-life” Positions

Instead, what I’m looking at is the pattern of those advocating for “the life of the unborn” as righteous–and not just any solution, but specifically overturning Roe v. Wade to make abortion illegal. By the views of this group, everyone else is seen as “anti-life”–in fact, “baby killers.”

To be honest, I’ve even seen some of this attitude in those that actually are broadly “pro-life”–or at least the attendant assumption that they might not belong with the “opposing tribe” since they believe that life begins at conception. (Which is to say that these narrow views have done bizarrely disturbing things to our religio-political senses of belonging.)

But yes, this extreme vein of rhetoric I’m talking about is the one that has become mainstream enough that it has birthed the most recent “heartbeat” laws in Georgia, Alabama, and other states. The kinds of laws that do actually criminalize the pregnant women who seek abortions as, indeed, “baby killers.”

In the rest of this article I’ll unpack some of the thinking from which these extreme views occur and unpack why I think these unhealthy policies and the rhetoric they stem from are exceedingly harmful.

Defining “Halo Effect” and “Horns Effect”

Let’s get into a couple more useful terms to get there. In addition to “god terms” and “devil terms,” communication scholars have these concepts called the “halo effect” and the “horns effect.”

Both the halo effect and the horns effect are quite simple and complex at the same time. The idea boils down to this: when we see one thing that we like or dislike about someone or something, we all tend to tap into webs of association with either largely positive or largely negative things about “such people.”

And it’s really hard to shake those webs.

The challenge with what I call “narrowly pro-life” positions, then, isn’t JUST that those holding such positions are protecting the life of the unborn against those they see as the hordes fighting them. (Though that can obviously get in the way of reasonable problem-solving dialogue.)

No, the problem is bigger than that. From my viewpoint of having been most places along the continuum of this issue over the years, the problem is that the (narrowly) pro-life issue puts a really strong halo effect on all those who claim to want to make abortion illegal by overturning Roe v. Wade.

It also puts a horns effect around those who advocate for different solutions surrounding the problem of unwanted pregnancies.

It’s Not Just Rhetoric Anymore: It’s Getting Encoded in Our Laws

And policies that emerge from these extreme views actually encode these things as matters of legality or the lack thereof. And although pregnancies take two to create, they only criminalize the woman in the equation.

These laws also elevate these “baby killers'” acts with those of “other murderers” we as a society choose to punish. Even while we as a society not only excuse but choose to elevate and praise the kills of those who we send to war.

(Note: on this Memorial Day, I’m not putting down veterans at all–the way we treat traumatized veterans is horrific. But the comparison is so important.)

The Explanatory of This Halo/Horns Effect

Both this particular halo effect and its attendant horns effect have caused huge amounts of damage to this country and its people. This, as I see it, is the source of the seeming switch of the Religious Right from claiming that morality is paramount in its leaders (not that long ago) to the current stance of the same population saying it’s not that big of a deal.

These Halo and Horns Effects Are So Strong that They Have Come to Represent Tribes Perceived as “Righteous” and “Unrighteous” by Those Who See Themselves on the Religious Right.

From my viewpoint, this set of webs around this issue is what is causing the biggest forms of entrenched polarization in the religio-political world right now.

And this viewpoint—that everyone who isn’t narrowly pro-life is a “baby killer” and everyone who advocates for conservative Supreme Court justices wears a white hat—is what all of those who disagree need to raise our voice against whenever we can, wherever we find it.

The Root of Our Current Religio-Political Schisms

THIS is the problem that, as I see it, has led to 81% of White Evangelicals voting for the current administration.

THIS is the problem that leads to people calling abortion a “holocaust” and “genocide” as they have been on my site for the last week or so, while failing to critique the current administration or state legislatures alike for their other anti-life policies. (Is making women who have miscarriages potentially be charged with a crime if they can’t “prove” the miscarriage is natural really “pro-life”?)

THIS is the problem that has led a whole group of largely goodhearted people to keep voting for, and defending their choices to vote for, a party that from my perspective is increasingly through both rhetoric and policies demonizing the opposition and attacking the checks and balances that make the US’s representative democracy work.

New Vulnerabilities to Propaganda and Conspiracy Theories

I believe this is the problem that has led a whole group of people to swallow propaganda and lies and conspiracy theories about their political opposition as “unchristian” and “murderers” and “brainwashers of children” and so on.

(I was told this week, for instance, by a gentleman commenter that I was part of the “one world order.” I can assure you that I do not have that kind of power. Nor do I want it, as my family and friends would quickly confirm. I was always the person who has often evaded playing the board game Risk precisely because I have no desire to take over the world, even symbolically.)

The Unhealthy Consequences of Embracing the These Webs

When anyone tries to knock down part of this broader web when discussing this issue, narrowly pro-life folks too often claim that you are trying to bring in distractor issues.  

It has also led those holding on to these webs to ignore a thousand broadly anti-life and anti-democracy and frankly unchristian things going on on “their side of the aisle.”

It often leads to some pretty unpleasant conversations when you try to point these things out.

The Strength and Ugliness of These Webs

It’s pretty ugly, this particular halo effects/horns effects phenomenon. I certainly wish it didn’t exist. But not only my previous experience and scholarship, but also the comments on my articles over the past year as well as the experiences of others have confirmed that this is exactly a big chunk of what’s been going on.

These webs are unfortunately not fragile ones. People would prefer I didn’t draw attention to their existence, much less their strength. But pointing to them does not create them.

In fact, it’s important to note that most of those reinforcing them in everyday interactions with their neighbors and family and friends and on their social media feeds did not create them.

I know—I used to buy into these webs myself. And I certainly did not come up with these ideas on my own. Nor did I hold them before I started consuming conservative Christian media.

And I gradually grew out of them once I became exposed to broader ecumenical and political views.

Some unscrupulous leaders and politicians created them.

Documentary evidence shows where these ideas came from–and that they didn’t pop up until a few years AFTER Roe v. Wade.

Why I’m Trying to Knock Down the Webs

Now—feeling like I was complicit in making these unhealthy webs that divide the religio-political world stronger for much too long, I really have felt the need to use the tools and scholarship at my disposal to point them out and advocate for them to be taken down.

This whole problem–and the need for people to speak up for more reasonable dialogue about this and other issues in the religio-political sphere–is one of the biggest reasons I started this site.

Thanks for following along as I’ve been unwrapping my way to this very point. As I said, it was annoying, the timing of these legislative debates about abortion. But it was also oddly fitting that the central voting issue I was educated in from my youth came up again just now, around the site anniversary.

The Costs of #AssertiveSpirituality in This Area

One thing is sure: diving into this fraught territory is not easy, no matter how gently and rationally you do it. These webs have become so fused with so many people’s identities that there is a really strong kickback if you try to point them out or knock them down.

And that doesn’t always lead the most immediately good or positive results–which doesn’t mean we don’t need people to speak up. It’s just not an easy thing to do.

Free Resources to Help Out Assertive Voices

If you need help with further understanding the stress basis underneath this and so many other kinds of conflict, we have a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” that can help you better understand and deal with conflict both online and off. Just sign up for our weekly email newsletter and confirm your email address, and it will be sent to you in the final welcome email. The list is through Mailchimp, so if you ever need to unsubscribe, it’s easy. But I hope you’ll stick around.

One Final Note to My “Pro-Life” Peops

If you are in this camp I once lived in—and now I’m also talking to anyone who identifies as conservative and pro-life who hasn’t been speaking up against these recent laws—please know the following. If I disagree with you about all of this, or advocate for something different, it doesn’t mean I’m attacking you as I attack these webs. Nor do I try to take it personally if you put me in the “horns” category.

But you should know this extreme rhetoric can and has caused me personal damage when it’s popped up on this site. I can guarantee you it’s doing the same for others around the country and the globe.

See, these extreme views, as they have become mainstream, have been unnecessarily hurting and stigmatizing a lot of people. And that is also anti-life. The fear of this extreme rhetoric is real, and the ways it is getting codified into actual laws justifies that.

If you disagree with the extreme rhetoric, we need your help in pushing back the rhetoric from further damaging effects.

Note that buying into the halo effect doesn’t actually make you more righteous, and it doesn’t make your “opponents” any less human or righteous.

I hope so much that you realize that and find another, healthier way.

In fact, I hope you recognize the limits of these unhealthy narrow views and reclaim a healthier way in the world. It’s not good for you as well as the rest of us, what you’re doing.

I know you’re used to being the ones calling others to repent, so you may not hear that well. You may presume that I am somehow consigning you to hell or something if you don’t do what I say, but that’s not my goal.

But I’m not in charge of your eternal salvation, and I’m happy not to be.

I’m just telling you it’s not good for so many people, these webs. I’m asking you to join us in breaking down these unhealthy stereotypes for the good of us all. Thanks so much for listening if you made it this far. I know you might not believe this, but I love all of you so much.

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep working to advocate for healthier solutions for us all, even when it’s hard. Let’s advocate for less hurt for those thrown under the bus by this false dichotomy. By all means, let’s each rest when we need to. And yet let’s also get back up and back to it when we’re able. Let’s keep doing what we can, where we are, with what we’ve got.

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9 thoughts on “Abortion Rhetoric, “Baby Killers,” and the Horns Effect (A Year of #AssertiveSpirituality Part 1)

  1. Thank you…reading you frequently encourages me to keep on keeping on, too. You are expressing the environment I was raised in and I do miss it in the broader world. Right now, you and Beau of the Fifth Column are the two really clear voices I see. And I am grateful.

    1. I needed so much to hear this encouragement this morning. Thank you so much. May we all be able to keep on keeping on, even when it’s not easy.

  2. Your comment that one purpose for launching this website and educational effort is your recognition of “the need for people to speak up for more reasonable dialogue. . ..“ I simply want to affirm this by sharing briefly here that for several years now I’ve felt equally deeply about wanting to engage in ‘interfaith dialogue’ — passionately desired as an endgame for the communication aims I find embodied in listening (as you know). What I’ve come to ‘know’ instead is that it’s not just an idle desire – a curiosity about other faiths; indeed now I’m feeling rather deeply that God wants interfaith dialogue — it’s not simply a personal goal. God wants us, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi etc. to engage in dialogue — because God’s nature is dialogical. Like you I don’t wish to exclude any from the table to which we’ve been invited but for too long have evaded. So I see in this effort of yours a determination to promote dialogue as just that — let all come to the table! Keep ringing the dinner bell! Thanks

    1. Thanks so much, Jerry! Greatly appreciated. I love the dinner bell image. And yes, so much with you on the dialogical nature of reality and God! Thanks for that.

  3. Thanks! In appreciate your attempt to point out the double standards the pro/lifers seem blind to. My fear is that it’s a permanent affliction. But I, like you, will continue to speak up as I can. Thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Sigh. Agreed. And yet I came from that camp and ended up understanding all the complicated facets of the issue, so there is hope. It’s worth keeping on keeping on, and resting when we need to. Thankful to have fellow travelers like you along the way–as you say, it helps. Thanks so much for commenting!

  4. This is the first writing of yours I have seen. Forgive me if this has previously been covered.

    Framing abortion debate around a question of when life begins is to ask the wrong question. Life continues and is renewed through sexual reproduction. To say life begins at fertilization is to deny the basic fact that a live ovum and a live sperm are required to meet for fertilization to occur.
    A question that is more to the point is this: At what point of development do we recognize a living human cell or group of human cells to be a person? Because it is a person who has or should have certain rights. And, after we decide that a new person has been created, what are the rights of that person? If it is decided that a zygote is a person, does it have a right to implant in the uterine wall, taking up lodging within a woman’s body until it can survive outside of that body? Or does it become a person when it has developed heart tissue and that tissue begins to contract rhythmically?
    Other persons do not have that right, after all. Or does a woman have the right to evict?

    I don’t have the answers. But I will venture to speculate that in neither the Common Law nor the King James bible will an example be found of personhood being conferred before the live birth of a child.

  5. Thank you so much for this post and for your presence in the internet. Your mission is greatly needed! I was encourage by your urging to speak up on this issue by finally writing my own blog post. It took quite a bit of reflection to listen deeply enough to know where and why I stand on the issue in spite of my catholic upbringing. And even more courage to send it to my email list, knowing that some would be offended and unsubscribe or turn into trolls. Luckily I have your guide to dealing with those trolls. Keep on showing up and reflecting the light of Christ!

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Abortion Rhetoric, …

by DS Leiter Time to read: 11 min