You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Pro-Lifers Should Sweat the Details of Abortion Penalties

Darren McCollester / Getty Images

With his liberal stances on prison reform and marijuana legalization, Rand Paul could face trouble reaching the social conservatives of the Republican base. This week, though, may have nudged him closer to their good graces. Bloomberg's Dave Weigel reported that Paul hit a home run with conservatives on Wednesday when he gave a characteristically brusque answer to a series of questions about abortion:

“Here's the deal—we always seem to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts," said Paul, waving his hands to the left. "Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a 7-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she's OK with killing a 7-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it's OK to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me."

At The American Conservative, Jon Coppage praised Paul for his savvy approach: Rather than sparring with the media about their biases in abortion coverage, he directly criticized Democrats, and in so doing affirmed conventional Republican wisdom on abortion. Paul concisely advanced the kernel of the pro-life position, namely that “life is special and deserves protection,” in his phrasing. He seemed frustrated with the tendency of abortion debates to spiral into arguments over exceptions and rare cases, saying, “The thing is about abortion—and about a lot of things—is that I think people get tied up in all these details of, sort of, you're this or this or that, or you're hard and fast (on) one thing or the other.”

Insofar as being “pro-life” is about being concerned with the sanctity and goodness of human life in all cases, Paul is exactly right: that principle has to precede details. But it is because human life matters and should be treasured that the particularities of abortion policy are extremely important. Objections to vagueness on the anti-abortion side, therefore, are as likely to come from people identifying as “pro-life” as from those who see themselves as “pro-choice.”

Exceptions matter because penalties matter. In a hypothetical world in which social conservatives called the shots and Roe were overturned, how would women who had abortions be treated? Identically to people who killed, say, 10-year-olds? And for such crimes, who would we hold culpable—women, or clinicians?

Conservatives against abortion are typically cagey on these details. Take, for example, Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death: the Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life. In a National Review column published online late last year, Ponnuru wrote:

If pro-lifers refuse to “advertise comparable penalties” for abortion and the murder of 25-year-olds ... it could have a number of causes. Some pro-lifers do not view abortion as identical to murder even if it is comparable to it: They think it typically lacks the element of malice that “murder” connotes, and think that penalties should take account of this pattern. (This is my view.) … Other pro-lifers may not have thought through the matter at all, or may think that the penalties should be comparable but that it’s impolitic to say so — and again, in neither case would their conduct have any bearing on the validity of their premises.

But murder sans malice is still typically punished harshly—say, as manslaughter—and it isn’t difficult to find voices on the right suggesting that such a penalty would be too light in their ideal post-Roe world. Consider Kevin D. Williamson, also of National Review, who last year called for women who have abortions to be hanged. Since, as Ponnuru asserts, it would be politically inadvisable for conservative pro-lifers to air views such as Williamson’s, it’s impossible to know how many envision the death penalty or similar sentences for women who have abortions in a post-Roe America, and how many, like Ponnuru, would prefer sentences akin to those handed down for manslaughter.

Extant policies enacted under the same pro-life logic that Paul outlined don’t portend well for those of us who dislike abortion but also oppose the life-destroying carceral system. Late last year, The Nation published an extensive report on various state laws (especially those enacted in Tennessee) that penalize drug use while pregnant as assault on the fetus, a logical outgrowth of reasoning that simultaneously views fetal life as worthy of the same protections as all other life, yet considers a penal-carceral response the best way to enact those protections. The outcome of the laws profiled in The Nation’s story included suicides, pregnant women avoiding rehab to avoid detection, and new moms avoiding hospitals to stay out of jail. Hardly a victory, in other words, for those who claim openly to value life and build public policy around that value.

How, in his ideal, would Paul handle women who have abortions? Would they face the death penalty, as in Williamson’s utopia, or something lesser but indefinite, as in Ponnuru’s? The majority of women who have abortions are already mothers. Would removing them from their other children serve a pro-life purpose, when so much of pro-life reasoning points toward the importance of the mother-child relationship? What of the children left behind: foster care, orphanages? And the mothers in prison, bastions of rape and abuse, what about their lives? Does it seem sane or restorative to put Purvi Patel in prison for some 20 years because she either had a miscarriage or an abortion? Anti-abortion, in other words, is not necessarily “pro-life.” This is why policy details matter.

Plenty of Americans identify as pro-life, as recent polling work by Vox has shown. But their position is complicated, and rightly dogged by questions of penalties and alternatives. Paul’s mistake is to presume that discussions of abortion penalties issue only from those who are pro-choice. There are plenty of reasons for a pro-life person, like myself, to refuse to support candidates or legislation that favor responses to abortion that are just as anti-life as the thing itself.