Women Who Have Abortions Are Victims, Not Criminals

Women Who Have Abortions Are Victims, Not Criminals October 5, 2014


When my colleague Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote his “What Should Abortion Penalties Be” blog post awhile back, I cheered – but I had one reservation, and it was to do with this passage.

Let me put a fine point on it: members of my family founded the two most important pro-life organizations; in my somewhat idiosyncratic and roundabout way, I am involved in American politics and frequent many American pro-lifers; I’ve been in and around the pro-life movement literally all my life, on two continents. Including the kinds of pro-lifers who handcuff themselves to abortion clinics. I can solemnly say that I have never, not once heard any pro-lifer call for, or anticipate, or desire that women be jailed for getting abortions, even in private, even when drunk, or whatever (at least insofar as I remember–but I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered, since it would have been shocking, which itself goes to my point). One of the most utterly commonplace (and correct!) pieces of pro-life rhetoric is the idea that women who have abortions are victims right alongside their children. So I view this idea as a complete canard.

Now, all PEG said was that he’d never encountered anyone who wanted to punish women who have had abortions with criminal penalties: but, I thought at the time, it was still important to recognize that these people do exist: that this is still a battle that needed to be won within the pro-life movement. I don’t think many pro-lifers think like this – but some do, and ignoring them runs a real risk of leaving hostages to fortune.

Unfortunately, Kevin Williamson of National Review proved me all-too-right when he tweeted recently that women who have abortions should be, not just punished, but executed, and not just executed, but hanged.

This is Julia Holcomb, who will be speaking to the Irish Pro-Life Campaign next Saturday about her abortion regret. She is able to do this because, fortunately, she was not hanged by Kevin D. Williamson.
This is Julia Holcomb, who will be speaking to the Irish Pro-Life Campaign next Saturday about her abortion regret. She is able to do this because, fortunately, she was not hanged by Kevin D. Williamson.

Now, there’s every chance that he doesn’t really want to see women hanged. This is Williamson’s shtick: taking a basic principle shared by many conservatives (in this case “abortion is killing”), and articulating it in such a way as to make it impossible for anyone who doesn’t already share all his priors to agree with him. I have no idea why he does this, but his actions seem like those of a man more interested in courting controversy than in winning converts.

But on the broader point of whether women should be given severe criminal penalties for having abortions, a quick look at his Twitter stream reveals that he’s very much in earnest.

Damon Linker, who’s been writing an excellent series of columns recently exposing the internal contradictions of social liberalism, decided to turn his fire on pro-lifers, writing that abolitionists who didn’t follow Williamson in wanting criminal penalties for women were being hypocritcal. His argument:

After all, those who oppose abortion rights claim that the procedure amounts to the infliction of lethal violence against an innocent human being. If they truly believe that, then of course they also believe it should be prosecuted and punished like any other act of homicide. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the Williamson controversy may be that his remarks surprised anyone at all.

Since one typically comes to favor outlawing abortion only because of a belief in its homicidal character, it’s hard to see how an opponent of abortion rights could do anything other than affirm a desire to see the murderers and their accessories brought to justice. It seems the only alternative would be to look hopelessly soft on crime.

No doubt some politicians, flinching before the electoral abyss, would try to stake out an alternative position, perhaps like the one that prevailed during the Middle Ages, when women who terminated their pregnancies were usually let off while the midwives who performed the procedure were sometimes punished.

But of course, medieval authorities were far less committed than today’s abortion opponents to the proposition that abortion is the violent termination of a life possessing as much dignity and worth as an autonomous person outside the womb. Once that premise is granted, leniency toward the woman makes no sense. It’s like saying that a person who hires a contract killer should get off scot-free.

If abortion really is murder, then everyone involved deserves to be punished, and punished severely — just as Kevin Williamson says.

If, on the other hand, such punishment sounds wildly, almost absurdly disproportionate, then maybe it’s a sign that abortion really isn’t murder after all.

I think both Williamson and Linker are wrong. Dead wrong. Criminal penalties for women are not the best way to legally protect life, and there’s nothing hypocritical about opposing them while being an enthusiastic abortion abolitionist.

Don’t believe me? Just think about prostitution.

I think that prostitution is morally wrong, for both seller and buyer. I think that to deliberately commodify a person (because living bodies are people) is objectively bad, and to take part in that transaction is similarly bad.

Some who oppose prostitution don’t agree, and are thus forced into the uncomfortable position of claiming that every single sex worker is in the profession against her will (leaving them struggling to explain away first-hand testimonies to the contrary.)

I don’t believe that: I’m quite sure that there are some middle-class, comfortably off women who go into prostitution of their own accord. But to make a cash transaction out of what ought to be the most intimate of human connections is still objectively wrong: no ifs or buts.

But I don’t support criminalising sex workers. I favour the Swedish model of legislation, which criminalises only the buyers. Does this make me a hypocrite?

Not remotely. The law is a blunt instrument, and well-designed laws have to take account of reality as it is, not just moral distinctions made in the abstract: and the reality is that the vast majority of people in sex work are either trafficked or “making the choice of those who have no choice”. They are victims of gender discrimination, race discrimination, poverty, abandonment, debilitating sexual and verbal abuse, lack of education, and jobs that don’t not pay a living wage.

Prostitution also inherently objectifies, commodifies, and dehumanises women, and its continued existence is dependent on a set of deeply-rooted sexist, and, yes, patriarchal attitudes. Why else are the overwhelming majority of people who buy sex male?

Given all this, supporting the Swedish model doesn’t even vaguely imply that I don’t really think prostitution is that serious – rather, I think that by recognising that women are almost always victims of sex work, the model does a better job of recognising and combating the evil of prostitution as it exists in the real world than the “criminalise everyone” alternative.

In fact, I think the whole assertion of hypocrisy is ridiculous: just ask those in favour of the legalisation of sex work if they think advocates of the Swedish model are soft on prostitution.

You see where I’m going with this.

Abortion, like prostitution, is an evil supported and enabled by society at large, and many of the pressures that drive women to have abortions are precisely the same ones. They manifest themselves as economic hardship (“being unable to afford a child” is the most common reason women give for having an abortion); social pressure from partners, family, and friends; cultural hostility to unplanned childbirth and single motherhood coming from elements of both the left and the right, a general lack of societal support for vulnerable women who want to carry their babies to term; a perception that having a baby at the wrong time will destroy a career; a third-level education system that seems determined to prove that perception accurate; an increasingly common view that sees children as less of a gift and more of a (slightly dubious) personal choice; and continuous, inevitable exposure to the message that abortion is not morally problematic, that it’s sometimes the best solution to the problem an unwanted pregnancy.

What’s more, women have to bear the burden of actually carrying an unwanted pregnancy, sometimes in pretty horrendous circumstances. I don’t think bodily rights arguments justify killing innocent people, nor do I think that a person conceived through rape or incest has any less of a right to life than anybody else.

But I do think that women who carry children to term after being raped are heroes: and I think that women who choose abortion because they see it as their only option deserve our compassion. It is we who should be ashamed – we have failed them as well as their children.

You only need to read the accounts of self-described pro-life women who’ve had abortions to realise the truth of Frederica Matthews-Green’s famous words, often quoted by pro-choice and pro-life people alike “No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

As PEG said in his last post, the pro-life talking point that an abortion has two victims is a cliché because it’s true.

Once you’ve accepted this, the case for criminalising women collapses. Is the inside of a prison cell the best we can offer these women? They’re not, as in Linker’s example, equivalent to people commissioning contract killers. They’re desperate people who are caught in a trap.

What’s more, abortion is a kind of killing that it’s very easy to make invisible. Many of the women who have abortions, influenced by the language of “lumps of cells” and “foetuses”, aren’t truly aware of what it an abortion really is. They lack, in Catholic terms “full knowledge” and their moral responsibility is, again, diminished.

Will this let some people off the hook? Yes, it will. There are undoubtedly women who decide to have an abortion because they simply can’t be bothered having a child, who know exactly what they’re doing, and do it anyway. But those are few: the law is a blunt instrument, and its primary purpose is not to punish the guilty, but to protect the most vulnerable.

And so we come to the key principle of a truly pro-life legal regime: it protects the vulnerable, and punishes those that make them vulnerable.

Which brings me to the doctors who perform abortions.

There aren’t, as far as I am aware, all that many doctors forced to perform abortions due to financial necessity or overwhelming social pressure; nor can they have the reality of their actions obscured by a societal veil: they are the ones surgically destroying unborn life. And doctors don’t have to live with any of the consequences of their patients’ unplanned pregnancy.

Doctors who perform abortions are no longer doctors at all: they have violated the hippocratic oath in one of the most egregious ways possible, and I have no qualms whatsoever about seeing such action made punishable by a custodial sentence.

So let’s support women and care for their children (a great place to start is by supporting Feminists For Life, who give practical support to college-age and poor women. Also, read their website: they’re magnificent) through charity and state support. Let’s make them welcome in our communities and in our society.

Let’s make it illegal to carry out abortions, and let the weight of criminal law fall upon those who make victims of both women and their babies.

This, as an end-goal abortion policy, would be just, compassionate, and effective. Let’s rally behind it, so we can get back to the work of offering women better choices, safeguarding children both born and unborn, and working to create a society where “the least of these” are truly treasured. The majority of pro-lifers already have.

To do otherwise is to distort the heart of our message. I am enough of a progressive to believe that one day abortion will be unthinkable. But those who argue for punishing women are lengthening the time until that day arrives.

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