Punishing Women For Abortions

Punishing Women For Abortions March 31, 2016

I don’t know why anyone is surprised Donald Trump argued that women who have abortions should be punished… and not just because he’s an unreflective, unaware, loud-mouth bully who would be a non-stop embarrassment as President. Say what you will about Barack Obama’s policies and leadership – he’s brought a much-needed dignity to the office of President.

From the time of Hammurabi (and probably before) laws have carried punishments – negative consequences for breaking them. Sometimes that’s been fines and imprisonment, other times it’s been beatings and even death. A law without a penalty isn’t a law, it’s a suggestion. Personally, I think we need a lot more suggestions and a lot fewer laws, but that’s another post for another time.

The right to an abortion is protected under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as articulated in Roe v. Wade in 1973. If you want to take away that right, presumably you want it to be a law and not a suggestion. There are only two reasons why you would want to make abortion illegal but not punish women who have them.

The first is that you think women aren’t capable of making such an important decision on their own and therefore can’t be held morally and legally responsible for it. I find this line of thinking logically flawed and ethically objectionable. If you think women aren’t capable of making their own decisions without the assistance or coercion of men, may I politely suggest that you shut up, go back to school, and learn that men and women aren’t nearly as different as you like to think.

More likely, though, at some level – maybe intellectual, maybe intuitive – you realize that a woman who has an abortion usually has very good reasons for doing so. Maybe reasons that tug at your heart. Maybe reasons you’ve had in your life, or in the life of someone close to you. Perhaps she’s 14 years old and can’t care for herself, much less a child. Perhaps being pregnant would be a major disruption to her life and the lives of her family. Perhaps it would endanger her health, or even threaten her life.

You realize that could be you or someone you love in that situation. And if it was, you would consider the possibility of an abortion, even though you think abortion is always wrong. You might only contemplate it for a moment before rejecting it, but the thought would occur to you… and you realize that other people might make a different decision. You have natural, human empathy for women who have abortions.

And so, using the kind of intuitive moral calculus we all do, you come to the conclusion that abortion providers should be punished but those who have abortions should not. That’s a completely inconsistent position, but we humans aren’t consistent creatures. We make our decisions at the gut level and then look for reasons to justify them.

Abortion is the most difficult and complicated issue of our time. For all our scientific advances, we still can’t say when life begins with any certainty. An acorn isn’t an oak tree and a fertilized egg isn’t a human being. When does one become the other? The more we learn, the more it seems that the answer is a process, not a point in time. That presents a challenge to our desire for moral clarity.

It’s also an opportunity for exploitation by puritans and politicians who want to control women, discourage sex, and increase the birth rate… at least among the “right” kind of people.

What is an acceptable reason for an abortion? Or if you still think there is never an acceptable reason for an abortion, what’s a reason that would make you think about it, or that you understand would cause some women to consider it even though you think they shouldn’t?

Who gets to decide what’s a legitimate reason and what isn’t?

The warning about women dying from back alley abortions isn’t hyperbole. It happened before, it happens today in places where abortion is illegal, and it will happen again in greater numbers if abortion is outlawed or made unobtainable. Why? Because for some women in some circumstances, the fear of being pregnant and having a child is greater than the fear of dying a painful death.

There is no punishment severe enough to prevent these women from seeking to end pregnancies they believe they cannot or must not complete.

If you believe abortion is wrong, I encourage you to make your case with rational and moral arguments, not with the force of law. You cannot eliminate abortion no matter what laws you pass or how viciously you enforce them, so I encourage you to help reduce the need for abortions: support comprehensive sex education in schools and easy access to low-cost / no-cost birth control. Teach boys and men to do their part in preventing unwanted pregnancies. And perhaps most importantly, build a society where the arrival of a child never, ever sends a woman or her family into poverty. That doesn’t necessarily mean expanded welfare payments, but it does mean “it’s not my problem” isn’t an acceptable answer.

I see the Donald has retreated from his original statement. This is not surprising. I do not think he cares about abortion one way or another. He said what he thought would win votes in the Republican primaries, but he quickly discovered than even with Republican voters the question of abortion is far more complicated than anyone cares to admit.

But he has given us an opportunity to explore the wisdom and compassion of our intuitive responses to the difficult and complicated situations that many women and their families experience during their lives.

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