Donald Trump has done what seemed impossible: He made the pro-life and pro-choice movements agree on something.
This week, his comment that there “has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions has earned him the condemnation of both the pro-life and pro-choice movements. His statements on abortion may not make him a misogynist villain. They do, however, make him an imprudent and bad representative of the pro-life movement.
Michael McGough published an article in the Los Angeles Times last week, “Trump’s abortion ‘gaffe’ exposed an anti-abortion contradiction.” In it, he argued that pro-lifers cannot both believe that abortion is wrong and that women who have abortions should not be punished. He writes, “If abortion is murder — or the moral equivalent thereof — it’s absurd to suggest that only the doctor who performs an abortion should be criminally responsible.”
The pro-life stance on abortion and punishments, however, does not produce a contradiction; rather, it presents a tension that requires careful consideration. McGough is right insofar as abortion is morally equivalent to murder, but coming to the conclusion that it should be punished as such reveals a shallow understanding of the purpose of punishments. While McGough concludes that “Trump was on solid logical ground,” his own line of reasoning, as well as Trump’s, disregards considerations of prudence and justice when it comes to punishing crimes.
In Trump’s defense, I do not think it is obvious that punishments for abortions are wrong. Nor does the pro-life movement spend a lot of time detailing what the country would look like if abortion were illegal. Indeed, there should be support for women who feel like they cannot provide for a child and encouragement for them to pursue adoption instead; but should women not be held legally responsible at all if they were to procure an abortion? Maybe, but that conclusion is far from evident.
From a liberal perspective, McGough argues it is paternalistic to assume women “are pawns of presumably male doctors with no control over their own actions” and “ought to be immune to punishment” for initiating an abortion if it were illegal. On this point, I largely agree with McGough. Women are just as much morally responsible for their actions as men.
On the issue of abortion, however, motivations for abortions vary greatly between women and should be taken into account. It is as inaccurate to see all women who have had abortions as self-centered as it is to see them all as victims. Understanding that there is a large disparity between getting an abortion out of desperation or out convenience makes it difficult to treat them the same. This factor alone makes administering punishments difficult in light of the purpose of punishments.
In order to be just, a punishment for crime must serve the purpose of preventing the crime from happening again in the future. In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes explains that “all evil which is inflicted without …possibility of disposing the delinquent (or, by his example, other men) to obey the laws is not punishment, but an act of hostility.”
So would some kind of punishment deter women from having more abortions? I argue no, because if abortion were already illegal, a woman desperate enough to pursue one would be unlikely to be deterred if she thought she could get away with it. Limited access to an abortionist, however, would make it difficult enough to make adoption a better choice.
On the other hand, punishing those who perform abortions, which was Trump’s clarification, would be very useful in preventing abortions. The doctors do not have the same concerns as the pregnant women, so the incentive to provide an abortion would be reduced significantly. While some may still be willing to perform an abortion, punishments could significantly reduce the supply of abortionists.
To be clear, I do not support punishments for women who have had abortions, but I also will not vilify Trump for not being prepared for a highly hypothetical question. Clearly, his answer and his stance on abortion were not well thought out; but this makes him a bad representative of the pro-life movement, not the patriarchy incarnate.
Nevertheless, while he attempted to clarify his position, the rhetorical damage has been done. The pro-life movement needs a different candidate, one who can articulate our principles and advance the cause against abortion.