Abortion is a huge issue in the upcoming U.S. presidential race. A large fraction of Donald Trump’s support comes from single issue voters for whom the pro-life issue is the only issue. They’ll hold their noses and vote for someone who, in every other category, is arguably worse than his Democratic opponent.
Greg Koukl and Alan Shlemon of the Stand to Reason podcast responded to an issue raised in the U.S. Republican campaign for the 2016 election, “Does Pro-life Logic Mean Women Who Get Abortions Should Be Punished?” With the 2020 election on the horizon, this is timely now as well.
Here’s their dilemma for pro-life Christians. Christians declare that abortion is murder, but you can’t have a crime without the appropriate punishment. Both the abortion provider and the woman herself should be severely punished—this is murder, after all.
On the other hand, that paints Christians as callous and unfeeling, so maybe we shouldn’t impose a harsh penalty on the woman. Or maybe any penalty at all. But in that case, what happened to the “abortion = murder” claim? Was that just hyperbole? Does the Christian carrying the sign know that abortion isn’t really murder? But if it’s just a harmless little exaggeration to make a point, how compelling is the pro-life case?
Though the boys tried mightily to extricate the average Christian from the punish-her-or-not dilemma, none of their attempts eliminated the problem. Here’s the first attempt.
Attempt 1: suicide analogy
Maybe the labeling of the crime (which the pro-lifers want) could be detached from the associated punishment (which they don’t want). They point to an analogy they’d like to follow.
Until the late 1960s, suicide was illegal in the United States. Of course the successful suicide cannot be prosecuted. Still, given that the great majority of suicide attempts are unsuccessful, we could in principle prosecute large numbers of people for unjustified attempts on their own innocent lives. Why don’t we do this?
We don’t now because attempted suicide has been decriminalized. But in the 1960s, in some states it was a misdemeanor or even a felony. That is, it was a crime with a punishment. (Is there any other kind?)
Public opinion on suicide has since softened. The article continues:
In general, it doesn’t seem either prudent or constructive [to punish suicide attempts]. Suicidal people typically aren’t a public safety risk. Anyone who wants to end his own life probably needs support and care.
The parallel is that women who have abortions are also not public safety risks, which allows Christians to sidestep punishing those women.
But there’s more to this parallel. The hypocrisy of toothless laws against suicide led to it being decriminalized. So then does the pro-life movement want to repeat that blunder and criminalize abortion with no threat of punishment? Is all this just hyperbole, or is abortion actually murder? If it is, they must demand the appropriate punishment.
This parallels the problem with many Christian anti-gay arguments. They point to the Bible to argue that homosexuality is wrong (it doesn’t actually say that—see here and here), but then they refuse to bring along the Old Testament’s punishment. With both abortion and homosexuality, there can be no crime without a punishment.
We’re not off to a good start.
Attempt 2: drug use analogy
Drug use is another parallel. The drug user is the pregnant woman, and the drug dealer is the abortion provider. Punish only the latter, Koukl says. (Tangent: can Koukl be arguing that society make all recreational drugs legal to consume?)
The analogy argues that drug users only hurt themselves, like the person attempting suicide. Drug users do hurt society if their habit drives them to crime—robbery or burglary, for example—but of course when they commit those crimes, they get the regular punishment.
So then when a woman asks for and then consumes a chemical abortifacient (the preferred approach up to 12 weeks of gestation and even beyond), she should logically receive the punishment due any crime she committed.
As with suicide, the trends aren’t going where Koukl wants them to. Attempted suicide was criminalized; now it’s not. Drug use was criminalized, but that’s being reduced. Crimes are punished consistently; it’s just that some things are no longer crimes. Koukl wants the unbalanced situation where abortion is a crime . . . but without punishment for the central participant.
Attempt 3: fetal homicide laws
There’s just one point that must be emphasized. It’s a small point. Indeed, it’s so trivial that I hesitate to muddy the water by mentioning it, but it must be made clear: sometimes the pregnant woman very much wants to keep the pregnancy and sometimes she very much doesn’t! These are two completely different situations, and fetal homicide laws are meant to protect the woman and fetus in the first situation only. For our discussion, this is a red herring.
I wonder if Christians like Koukl have thought this through. If abortion were murder that wasn’t punished, actual murderers could demand that they get the same treatment. This is surely not a legal precedent that Koukl would support (h/t commenter 90Lew90).
so that she has a miscarriage,
yet there is no further injury,
he shall be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him,
and he shall pay as the judges decide.
— Exodus 21:22–3
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/25/16.)