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How Should Society Punish A Murder?

Anti-abortion rhetoric is so extreme that it's no wonder some activists support drastic measures.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

At the center of the storm around Kevin D. Williamson’s move to The Atlantic, there are tweets, and at the center of those tweets, there are women. In tweets the conservative writer has since deleted (along with his account), he said the law should treat abortion like any homicide. For women who commit the deed, he said he had “hanging in mind.”

Despite Williamson’s views, or perhaps because of them, many conservatives have defended him and his new employer. Williamson, they point out, believes abortion ends a human being’s life. If you truly think that abortion murders a defenseless child, it follows that you’d support criminal penalties of some kind—perhaps even the death penalty. There are those who subscribe to a different right-to-life ethos: Many Catholics, for example, oppose the death penalty along with abortion rights. Otherwise, Williamson’s defenders have a point. The logical chain from one position to the other is hard to avoid.

Williamson isn’t the first abortion opponent to argue that women should face legal consequences for abortion. “If the hit man is guilty, so is the person who ordered the hit,” The Federalist’s Georgi Boorman argued. Abolish Abortion Idaho has called for the prosecution of abortion patients; at least one bill, introduced into the Texas legislature in 2017, proposed removing criminal immunity from homicide charges for patients and providers. 

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump announced that there should be “some form of punishment” for the act if it is banned, and a poll later showed that 39 percent of his supporters agreed with him. (Trump later tried to recant.) Taken to its most extreme, the belief that women are complicit in murder when they solicit an abortion motivates domestic terrorism. Robert Lewis Dear didn’t just target abortion providers when he shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. He targeted patients, too.

Nevertheless, criminal prosecution, let alone the death penalty, is further than most organized anti-abortion groups want to go. “Pro-life legislators and pro-life leaders do not support the prosecution of women and will not push for such a policy when Roe is overturned,” stated Americans United for Life in a position paper, which outlined its belief that women were not customarily prosecuted for procuring abortions before Roe. The counter-argument to Boorman and Williamson is typically based on the premise that women are victims of a callous industry.

“Just as a physician seeks to bring both mother and child safely through the labor process,” Kimberly Ross wrote for Red State, “we must guide women from a place of desperation and regret to hope and wholeness.” “Women Deserve Better Than Abortion,” the Alliance Defending Freedom, a far-right legal group, proclaims on its website. The so-called abortion industry “deceives” women, says Live Action News.

But this view—that the law should punish providers, not women—directly contradicts rhetoric put forward by the same anti-abortion groups. Abortion is murder, they all agree. Some go beyond this. Abortion is a genocide, a hate crime, a second Holocaust. The argument put forward by Ross et al require us to think that women are helpless, with no agency of their own. That presumption is present within the movement’s term of art for would-be abortion patients: “Abortion-minded.” In 2018, the suggestion that women are a bit feeble in the head is a shaky sell. And it still doesn’t square with the assertion that abortion is a murderous act.

Conservative statehouses have acted accordingly. They punish women by closing clinics, and by forcing them to wait days before they can terminate their pregnancies. They make their doctors tell them lies about the risks of the procedure–that abortion can cause breast cancer and PTSD and infertility, that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. And then, when a woman finally summits the mountain legislators have placed in her path, she often faces a gauntlet of screaming picketers. Sometimes those picketers will follow her into the clinic to warn her she is about to become party to murder. Chances are decent that the doctor who performs the abortion regularly receives death threats or is stalked by the same people outside the clinic.

It is difficult, then, to believe that women would escape a nationwide abortion ban unscathed. Look no further than the U.S.’s neighbors to south. A 14 year-old rape victim in Paraguay recently died in childbirth after the law denied her an abortion. El Salvador regularly imprisons women who suffer miscarriages and stillbirths, under the rationale that their losses could actually be proof they had abortions. And the U.S. is already catching up to the standards they’ve set, as Irin Carmon noted for The Washington Post in 2017. Purvi Patel faced 20 years in prison in Indiana for inducing her own abortion, before her conviction for feticide was overturned. Anna Yocca spent a year in prison in Tennessee after attempting to end her pregnancy with the use of a coat hanger; she eventually pled guilty to “attempted procurement of a miscarriage.”  

“Before Roe, there were no feticide statutes like the one under which Patel was convicted,” Carmon wrote. Now those statutes are here.

The anti-abortion movement is not of one mind. The movement is divided over tactics and policies and penalties. Some activists allow exceptions for rape or incest or the life of the mother. Others do not. But they all collapse the differences between an embryo and the person in whom it resides, and in doing so they help normalize extremism. The anti-abortion position reduces woman to host and prioritizes a future person over one that already exists. If activists achieve their demands, an entire population will lose the freedom to determine its reproductive fate. Such a draconian measure would need an equally immense justification, such as the end of mass murder.

And so abortion opponents cannot really separate themselves from Williamson’s position. They’ve cast open the door; would-be prosecutors of women merely walk through it. To call an act murder is to call it a crime, and that is an implicit demand for state intervention. Anti-abortion activists all want to mobilize state power against the body in some manner. They want the law to constrain the body, to restrict it, to force it into certain patterns. Abortion opponents can say they don’t want to punish women but the punishment is already there, in every proposal to force women to give birth. And why feel pity, if you think women are murderers? Give Williamson credit for his honesty, at least.