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Why Pro-Lifers Don’t Support Punishing Women For Abortion


Should a woman be punished for seeking abortion? In a rare and impressive feat, Donald Trump managed to outrage both pro-life and pro-choice activists last week by answering the question in the affirmative.

Defenders of America’s abortion regime seized the opportunity to pontificate about the ways regulations relating to abortion are already “punishing women” (read: inconveniencing them). (Anyone who recalls the horrors of Kermit Gosnell’s establishment might reflect that unregulated abortion providers are likely more punishing to their clients.) Pro-lifers were appalled to hear the Republican front-runner talking casually about assessing punishments to desperate mothers, evidently believing that this sort of talk would please them.

Punishing Abortionists, Not Mothers

The pro-life movement has consistently maintained that abortion providers deserve to be punished. By all means, let’s pass laws that enable us to prosecute people who profit off the desperation of pregnant women, actually building careers out of the grisly business of destroying nascent human life.

What sort of people keep the abortion industry running? Quite recently, the Center for Medical Progress has given us good, hard look. It wasn’t edifying. It turns out, regardless of the legal situation, that people who volunteer to kill unborn babies all day generally aren’t the sort you’d want to leave with your kids. Most pro-lifers would be thrilled to see the Deborah Nucatolas and Mary Gatters of the world hauled into interrogation rooms to answer for their crimes against humanity.

The pro-life movement has never advocated criminal penalties for abortion-seeking women.

By contrast, the movement has never advocated criminal penalties for abortion-seeking women. Prior to Roe v. Wade, the American legal tradition overwhelmingly sided against such penalties. This is understandably puzzling to some. After all, if the fetus is indeed an innocent human being with a right to life, wouldn’t abortive women effectively be guilty of murder? Isn’t abortion-seeking rather like hiring a hit man to kill one’s own child? Why wouldn’t we punish that? Isn’t the pro-life movement just being inconsistent here?

Actually, this issue is a good one for illustrating the real strengths of the pro-life movement, which is truly one of America’s great humanitarian achievements. Pro-lifers do absolutely believe that the unborn are precious human beings with a full right to life. Human lives are precious, even when they’re small.

Nevertheless, pro-lifers have managed to maintain this without losing the virtue of prudence. They are zealous, but not zealots. This movement is far more than just the working out of a metaphysical principle.

More Than Metaphysics

An unborn child is precious, and the decision to have it killed is terrible indeed. Still, we can recognize that fact without losing sight of the tremendous burden a child can place on the woman who carries him. As champions of life, we know that mothers and babies are intimately connected. It’s generally quite difficult to help the latter by threatening the former. Progressive liberals frequently speak as though mothers and children are natural enemies. We try to avoid making that same mistake.

Mothers and babies are intimately connected. It’s generally quite difficult to help the latter by threatening the former.

This is more than just a rhetorical nicety. Progressives would have us believe abortion is liberating for women. It isn’t. Simply by being available, abortion undercuts the customs and sensibilities that enable expectant mothers to find the support they need in a difficult pregnancy. The procedure itself rips apart two people who are connected by a deep natural bond. It is gravely injurious to the women as well as the children, whether or not they fully appreciate this damage.

To a great extent, they do. Women seeking abortions regularly report they would prefer to keep the baby if only they had more support. Post-abortive women often experience deep depression and other health problems. When pro-lifers claim women are the second victims of abortion, they aren’t just being politically correct. Many people are hurt by abortion, but mothers tend to pay a much heavier price than the disinterested boyfriends or other associates who frequently pressure them to make the “easy” choice.

Victimhood Doesn’t Preclude Guilt

In saying this, we in no way deny that an abortion-seeking woman does a grave wrong. All sin injures the sinner, and this isn’t necessarily an argument against punishment. Some women, in light of their immaturity and desperate circumstances, may not be very blameworthy when they opt for abortion. In other cases, women kill their unborn children for relatively trivial reasons, and some of these surely do deserve serious blame.

It hardly seems possible that abortion-seeking women recognize the hideousness of what they do.

I have found, anecdotally, that some pro-life men (not all) view abortion-seeking women with a kind of horror that makes forgiveness difficult. I think that’s understandable. Decent men naturally feel called to protect women and children, especially in times of vulnerability (such as pregnancy). It can be hard to look compassionately on women who deny men even the opportunity to do the right thing.

For me (as a pro-life woman and mother of four) abortion stories are likewise horrifying, but the effect is somewhat different. Even when the tone is defiant (as in the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign), I feel overwhelming pity for the authors. Regrettably, most women today have a radically underdeveloped sense of the moral importance of fertility and nascent life. It hardly seems possible that abortion-seeking women recognize the hideousness of what they do.

Pastors, priests and psychiatrists can help individuals decide how blameworthy they are in particular cases. With respect to the law, though, we should recognize that abortion is intrinsically harmful to two closely connected people, and a law that implicitly pits one against the other may not send the right message about the value of life.

All Lives Matter

All human life is precious. That doesn’t mean that all wrongful deaths call for identical responses. Of course, courts are used to considering a broad range of factors in determining the degree to which one person is responsible for another’s death. Intentions matter, as do broader circumstances. Even those guilty of intentional killing may have mitigated responsibility for a variety of reasons.

When we appreciate how gravely abortion harms the involved mothers, we might find ourselves drawing many parallels to suicide.

An interesting comparison might be drawn between abortion and suicide. The Western tradition has generally regarded suicide as gravely immoral, which makes sense from the standpoint of valuing all life. Some might be inclined to argue that a person has ownership over his own life, such that taking it is his prerogative.

They might reflect, however, that such radical claims of self-ownership might bleed fairly easily into the kind of “my body, my choice” rhetoric that is often used to justify abortion. There can be no doubt that suicide causes enormous pain and injury to friends and family members of the deceased; whether or not a crime, it certainly isn’t victimless.

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? In general, it doesn’t seem either prudent or constructive. Suicidal people typically aren’t a public safety risk. Anyone who wants to end his own life probably needs support and care. This is not to deny that suicide can, in some instances, be intensely selfish, and quite possibly worthy of blame. Still, recognizing the psychological unhealth that a suicide attempt evidences, we’re usually more inclined to offer help, compassion, and prayers.

When we appreciate how gravely abortion harms the involved mothers, we might find ourselves drawing many parallels to suicide. The desperate decision to have one’s own child killed, from within one’s own body, comes perilously close to self-annihilation. Like suicide, the decision can still be blameworthy. But there’s no good reason to think that abortive women pose a broader threat to public safety, and in general, we’re more likely to help both women and children by responding to abortion with compassion and offers of support.

Let’s Focus On Saving Lives

“We are interested in saving babies,” wrote Robert George in First Things, “not punishing mothers. And we know that we don’t need to punish mothers to save babies.”

For decades, pro-choice Americans have tried to paint the pro-life movement as misogynist, chauvinist, and otherwise fixated on curtailing the rights and freedoms of women. For decades, pro-lifers have patiently repeated that they have no desire to persecute or shame women. They simply want to protect the lives of the unborn.

Trump’s remarks demonstrate how completely his sensibilities have been formed by the progressive left. He cannot even pretend to be pro-life without drawing on the ugliest of progressive stereotypes. But no one should be fooled; we’re better than that. We are pro-mother and pro-child. That’s what it means to be pro-life.