MSNBC held a town hall event Wednesday during which host Chris Matthews asked Donald Trump whether women who seek abortions should be punished if abortion is ever outlawed. Trump hemmed and hawed a bit but Matthews kept pressing him. Finally he said, “There has to be some form of punishment.” After much outrage from the many sides of the abortion debate, Trump issued a statement.
Here are four reasons why this response betrays pro-lifers.
1) No Understanding of the Media Environment
Most of the media do a very poor job of hiding their support for abortion. They never ask consistent pro-choice politicians why they believe it should be legal to kill a child for the crime of being a girl instead of a boy, of having Down syndrome, or of being an inconvenience. But they always think to press pro-life politicians about rape exceptions to protections for unborn children.
The uniformity of thought among journalists has meant that pro-life politicians have to be very careful how they talk about the sensitive subject. The media may forget to cover serial killing abortionist Kermit Gosnell until forced to by public pressure, but they have no problem writing 243,000 stories about a senate candidate saying something wrong about pregnancy.
Even this story, in which Trump betrayed the pro-life movement, the media treated it as something that only pro-choicers might have a problem with. Bloomberg wrote of it, “The comment, which immediately riled abortion-rights supporters…” Riled, perhaps, but they couldn’t have dreamed of a better comment to position themselves against. The Daily Mail seemed to think Trump’s comment was intended to appeal to pro-lifers! Do they know any pro-lifers?
In any case, think back to when Planned Parenthood ran a media campaign against Sen. Rand Paul. They wanted him portrayed as extreme on abortion. Phillip Elliott, now with Time but then with the Associated Press, has legendary problems covering abortion. My favorite is the correction he had to run for somehow turning pro-choice Satanists into a pro-life problem. Anyway, Elliott ran a story with the headline “Paul won’t spell out abortion ban exceptions.” Other Planned Parenthood minions peppered Rand with questions about his pro-life stance. So after a few days of this, Paul pointed out the rather obvious problem with media coverage of political views on abortion: only pro-life candidates are asked tough questions about it. You can watch Paul’s answer to a reporter’s request that he respond to the Democratic National Committee’s take on his abortion views here, as uploaded by Dave Weigel. (Go 8:00 minutes into the video):
He said, “We always seem to have the debate wayyyyyy over here on what are the exact details of exceptions, or when it starts. Why don’t we ask the DNC: is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is just not yet born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when she’s willing to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, come back to me.”
Now, Paul is happy to talk about his pro-life stance, but he’s also cognizant of the disgustingly uneven media environment in which any debate about abortion is held. Our media tend to be happy to dehumanize unborn children to make violence against them easier. They don’t even have the moral imagination to consider the other side of the issue. They are not familiar with the philosophical, scientific, or ethical arguments in play.
To be a pro-life human rights advocate in this day and age requires fortitude and savvy.
Trump is a media master. He makes the media dance his tune, and he does a great job of it. That he could not use his amazing communication skills here — and, indeed, would do such a horrific job at communicating a pro-life message — is devastating. His surrogate Ben Carson tried to help him out by saying he wasn’t told it would be a question. Fine, but the last time a major Republican was thrown by this question was 30 years ago. How could you not see it coming from the one-note media?
2) No Understanding of the Pro-life Movement
Trump is a recent convert to the pro-life cause. Converting to the side of justice for unborn children and their mothers is always a good thing, no matter when it happens. As Trump himself notes, pro-life champion Ronald Reagan once signed a law legalizing the killing of unborn children in California. But Reagan didn’t become a pro-life champion simply by converting to the pro-life cause and then giving mumbled statements about the matter. He became a pro-life champion by leading the movement and communicating the pro-life message through a hostile media. He wrote the book, “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation” and spoke to the massive March for Life each year.
If Trump knew anything at all whatsoever about the pro-life movement, he would know what the movement thinks about abortion and whether mothers should be punished.
March for Life leader Jeanne Mancini was one of the many pro-life leaders who rushed out statements aghast at Trump’s comments:
“Mr. Trump’s comment today is completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion,” said Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. “Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision. No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”
3) No Deep Thinking about Justice
Pro-lifers understand that abortion is a violent act against women and children. They seek to end the injustice of abortion. They discuss the issue of how to move to a society where all human life is welcomed and protected. Trump showed no understanding of the debates about how to protect vulnerable women and their children from the evil pressure to abort and whether “punishment” is appropriate.
As folks on Twitter discussed, response to abortion requires some moral imagination and conceptions of justice beyond punishment. These issues are such a part of the pro-life movement’s compassionate response to women victimized by abortion that within moments, pro-life thinkers were publishing op-eds on the matter. Charles Camosy explained some of the thinking at play in his New York Daily News piece, “Why serious pro-lifers don’t want to punish women: What Donald Trump (and glib pro-choicers) fail to understand about the anti-abortion movement.” The entire thing is worth a read but here’s how it ends:
What was essential for social equality, according to those responsible for our abortion laws, was that women are able to end their pregnancies when they are a burden on their economic and social interests. But being pregnant and having a child is often so burdensome precisely because our social structures have been designed by and for people who cannot get pregnant. Notice how, in this context, our abortion laws end up serving the interests of men and coercing the so-called “choice” of women.
Someone who is coerced into having an abortion as a means of having social equality should not be put in jail. Women, like their prenatal children, are victims of our horrific abortion policy. Instead, physicians who profit from the violence of abortion ought to be punished. Philadelphia’s Dr. Kermit Gosnell is currently in jail after facing eight counts of murder. Seven of the counts were related to his killing babies beyond the legal limit, counts Dr. Gosnell “didn’t understand” because he was merely finishing off a late-term abortion.
Trump’s most recent switch-a-roo on abortion is yet more evidence that his new pro-life position is deeply unfamiliar. Serious pro-lifers want protection and support for both the prenatal child and her mother, and that is why serious pro-lifers do not support Trump. He is a fake pro-lifer.
4) Pure Sabotage of the Debate
Quin Hilyer at National Review Online raised a point that everyone was missing in the brouhaha. It wasn’t just that Trump said he’d support punishing women. It was also how he made the argument. When Matthews asked him how he’d ban abortions, Trump word-clouded something to the effect of, “You go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places, but we have to ban it.”
As Hilyer writes:
Scrutinize that for a moment. If that doesn’t play into the hands of the anti-life movement, nothing does. This is a wink-wink/nudge-nudge to the idea that illegal abortion mills or perhaps even back alleys are to be accepted as alternatives to legal abortions — rather than that, say, adoptions should be promoted, along with community support for pre-natal care and both pre- and post-natal counseling.
This answer most makes sense if you imagine that Trump’s main goal was to sabotage everything the pro-life movement has ever worked for. Perhaps he’s just so new to thinking about abortion that his mind is a tumbled mess of thoughts. Being an outsider who is new to political discussions has served Trump well thus far in his campaign. In the case of the most important human rights issue of our time, it’s a disaster.