Yesterday, Republican front-runner Donald Trump fumbled and stumbled when asked a basic question about abortion policy. He was not prepared for that question and he did not know the Standard Answer.
But the Standard Answer that Donald Trump did not know, and thus could not give, isn’t really an answer at all. It’s an evasion — a practiced, polished bit of Luntzian semantic gymnastics. And the purpose of this Standard Answer has never been to provide the questioner with a satisfactory response. The purpose, rather, is to reassure the answerer that some Standard Answer exists and that the answerer doesn’t need to be troubled by the question or to give it any further thought or to worry that it might raise any significant matters that the answerer needs to consider.
In a sense then, Donald Trump didn’t need the Standard Answer. He was already there. The Standard Answer’s function of reassuring self-deception and reinforcing mental complacency is simply redundant when applied to a person like Donald Trump.
Back when I was a pro-lifer, I needed the Standard Answer. It kept me from flailing like the poor folks in Lee Goodman’s 2007 video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk6t_tdOkwo
When I was a teenager, my white evangelical tradition suddenly adopted and began enforcing a new essential dogma of anti-abortionism. I was a good student. I was wholly, loyally, and enthusiastically on-board with the new program and could recite our new catechism without flaw and without fail.
So I knew the Standard Answer that Donald Trump tripped over yesterday, and I recited it automatically whenever I was asked the question he was asked: “If abortion is illegal, do you think women who have abortions should be punished?”
The Standard Answer is this: “Of course no one is talking about putting women in jail. No one has ever said that’s what should be done. We would only punish the abortionists, not the women.”
The substance of the Standard Answer comes last because the substantial aspect — punish doctors, not women — isn’t coherent enough to bear the weight of a satisfactory answer. The load-bearing work is done prior to that insubstantial substance. The key component is the dismissive tone — all that “of course” and “no one is saying …” business that denies the legitimacy of the question and thus denies that any response needs to be substantial or logical or coherent. The boldness of this evasion is softened and diffused by the move from singular to plural and from the particular to a vague, undifferentiated “we.”
The Standard Answer, in other words, avoids engaging the question as “What do I think” by shifting the response to “What we say/think/believe is …” This may seem unimportant to the questioner, but it is vitally important to the answerer because, again, this is the primary function of the Standard Answer: reassuring oneself that an answer exists and that “we” have one, and that therefore I do not need to worry about it any further.
Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion lobby Susan B. Anthony List demonstrated this function of the question today with a bravura recitation of the Standard Answer on NPR’s Morning Edition:
The pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.
The real earliest roots of feminism and the women’s movement really embraced the idea that her innermost soul, in Susan B. Anthony’s words, recoil from the dreadful deed, but thrice guilty is the one who drove her to the deed. And who is that? It’s the abortionist. And that who — is who is the one to be punished when there’s a law against abortion.
That rhetorical flourish of the Susan B. Anthony quote garbles Dannenfelser’s response a bit, since Anthony’s reference to “the one who drove her to the deed” has nothing to do with the doctor* performing the procedure.
But apart from that, Dannenfelser sticks to the script and includes all the key aspects of the Standard Answer. She begins with the shift from the individual and particular to the plurally vague. She insists that this vague plural has never, ever suggested anything like the idea that it wants women to be punished for doing something “we” want to be against the law. And she trails off at the end with the suggestion that this needn’t be explored further since all anyone wants to do is maybe put some evil abortionizers behind bars.
I relied on the Standard Answer when I was a good, faithful pro-lifer. It made the question go away, just as it was meant to do. The Standard Answer worked very well for me until one day, suddenly, it didn’t.
It stopped working for me because, alas, I started listening to what I was saying. I started hearing the way I was leaning so heavily on those introductory denials that of course no one should ever suggest that we had ever suggested any such thing as to suggest that … And I started wondering why this insistence needed to be so insistent.
Obviously, I understood why this question arose so often and why we needed to be prepared to respond with the Standard Answer. About one in three American women will have an abortion. I wanted abortion to be illegal. I argued that it was already a crime in the eyes of God — a crime morally indistinct from murder. So logically, if one in three American women was committing a crime, it would make sense that a third of American women should be punished as criminals. And if these women were hiring evil baby-killing abortionists to commit murder on their behalf, it does seem kind of odd to say that this premeditated crime wasn’t deserving of punishment.
But I urgently wanted to ensure that no one thought I was arguing for the imprisonment of women because of two reasons. First, I did not want my questioners to think that I (or “we”) wanted to see those women imprisoned because I realized that criminalizing those women would make my/our political goal of criminalizing abortion more difficult to achieve.** That motivation for the Standard Answer involved some unprincipled calculation, and it was unpleasant to realize that such calculation was a factor in my argument — an argument that I had been taught to believe was based wholly in our superior moral worldview.
That was unsettling, but not as unsettling as the second reason my invocation of the Standard Answer was so insistent. I did not want my questioners to think that I wanted to see these women punished because I genuinely did not want to see them punished. At some basic level — some level at which I had not yet allowed myself to articulate my own thoughts to myself — I did not think that punishing these women would be good, fair, right, necessary or just. I thought punishing these women would be wrong.
Why would I think that? Well, that was the question that the Standard Answer was designed and employed to prevent me from ever asking of myself. I had been trained and catechized to defend against ever thinking about that, but it turns out that not thinking about questions is trickier than it might seem.
What this meant for me, as you know if you’ve read this site before, is that I came to realize I was incapable of defending the central dogma of the anti-abortion religion my people had adopted as the central pillar of our faith — that a fertilized egg is morally and legally indistinct from a human child or a human adult. If that claim were defensible, then I would have no reason not to want to see those women punished and no reason not to try to convince others that they also should want to see those women punished.
Please note what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying I became incapable of believing this claim about the full personhood of the zygote, but that I became incapable of defending it. I’m not sure that anyone is ever capable of believing this claim. Defending it is the closest we can manage to that. Aggressively defending the claim can, over time, come to seem like almost the same thing, but it’s not.
One cannot ever lose one’s conviction of this claim because this claim was never a matter of conviction. It was always a matter of simplicity, and of the clarity that can be enjoyed and indulged thanks to that simplicity. The performance of conviction defends the simplicity, but the simplicity is always the essential thing — the dear thing desired most. That this simplicity is an illusion — a known or, at least, dimly suspected falsehood — doesn’t make it less attractive. That only means that the performance — the defending — needs to be ever-more emphatic, louder, and more categorical.
The Standard Answer is not really an answer at all. It was never supposed to be one. It’s purpose is mainly to give us something we can shout so loudly that we don’t have to hear ourselves think.
– – – – – – – – – – –
* Note: Never say “doctor.” Always say “abortionist.” This is very important. The word “doctor” has too many favorable connotations and implications.
Most importantly, allowing that word to be spoken exposes the absurdity of the central assertion that abortion is a supply-driven phenomenon — an unwanted, unneeded thing pushed onto women by the abortionists of the abortion industry. This idea falls apart when we allow the word “doctor” to be used because thinking of doctors as supply-driven pushers of health care quickly becomes laughable and puts us in the position of arguing, essentially, that if we just closed all the hospitals then there would be no sickness or injury.
The Standard Answer depends on this supply-side argument. “No one is saying we want to put millions of women in prison. What we’ve always said, rather, is that we want to put tens of thousands of doctors in prison” only makes sense if those doctors are the cause of the problem and bear primary responsibility for the crime. So never say “doctor.” Always say “abortionist.”
** The Standard Answer is also inaccurate. It’s not, in fact, true. “The pro-life movement” has, in fact, advocated the punishment of women. And it is now — at this very moment — advocating that more women be punished more severely. “No one wants to punish women”? Really? Ask Rennie Gibbs and Purvi Patel and Amanda Kimbrough, Nina Buckhalter, Melissa Ann Rowland, Bei Bei Shuai, or any of the other women charged, prosecuted or imprisoned for murder or feticide or “fetal harm.”
The Standard Answer is a lie. And the anti-abortion activists yesterday rushing to clarify that Donald Trump wasn’t speaking for them because Standard Answer — they were, in fact, lying.