Hectored by Chris Mathews of MSNBC, Donald Trump said that after abortion becomes illegal, women who get abortions should be punished. After a huge outcry, a few hours later he took it it back. His problem is that what he said originally makes too much sense to be politically effective.
The logical case for punishing pregnant women
Here’s how it lays out logically.
If you believe that a fetus is not a person in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, then you also believe that a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body and future is important. You’re “pro-choice” or “pro abortion-rights.” You may regret that abortions happen and want to prevent them, but you don’t think of them as criminal. This is consistent.
If, on the other hand, you believe that the fetus is a person, then abortion means killing that person. You’re “pro-life” or “anti-abortion.”
But if abortion is the intentional killing of a person, then it must be murder.
If abortion is murder, then the people who plan and execute that killing are criminals.
If a pregnant woman and her doctor plan that abortion, they must be conspirators in a killing. So if you believe that abortion is murder, then you ought to believe that the woman planning it is guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, which of course has a criminal punishment.
That’s quite logical. It’s the logic that ensnared Trump. His problem was not lying — he was (as he often does) reasoning on the fly. His statement made perfect sense. Criminalizing pregnant women is a perfectly logical consequence of banning abortion.
The political case for not punishing pregnant women
Conservatives have enough problems winning over women. If they start saying they’ll charge millions of women with conspiracy to commit murder, they’ll never win an election. This is why Trump had to reel in what he said — in suggesting he would punish women, he went way beyond what any politician would normally say.
Here’s the political reasoning that conservatives traditionally use.
We want the backing of religious conservatives, so we will say we want to ban abortion.
To ban abortion, we must have criminal penalties for it.
We cannot criminalize millions of women, so we will say that the doctors, not the pregnant women, are the criminals. That way we won’t lose the votes of millions of women. (We’ll also avoid the spectacle of prosecuting masses of women.)
We will justify this by saying that the women who get abortions are victims along with the fetuses. Of course, this implies that women are incapable of making their own decisions, but we won’t talk about this.
The shelter of hypotheticals
Abortion is legal now in America. This is why it’s possible for those who want to ban it to conjure all sorts of scenarios about what a ban might look like.
If conservatives are ever able to change the law, who knows what criminal elements of the new law might be?
If you’re pro-life, help me out here. Where did my reasoning go wrong? Forget the political considerations, where’s the logic in not holding women responsible for the decisions that they make, that you believe are criminal?