One good thing about having a colossal blowhard like Donald Trump run for president is that he occasionally blurts out a gaffe, which Michael Kinsley famously defined as “when a politician tells the truth–some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
Trump did just that last week when he said in an interview that when abortion is outlawed, women who get abortions should be punished. Politicians and pundits pounced, aptly noting that Trump sounded like a pro-choice politician trying to imagine what a pro-life candidate would sound like.
Some conservatives complained that it was a “gotcha” question, but it’s hard to see how. Those who think abortion should be illegal have an obligation to say what they think the penalty should be.
Trump’s closest Republican competitor, Ted Cruz, dodged the question twice at the Iowa Freedom Summit last year. But Troy Newman, a co-chairman of the Pro-Lifers for Cruz coalition, has written, “in our society, a mother of an aborted baby is considered untouchable where as any other mother, killing any other family member, would be called what she is: a murderer.”
And Cruz’s father, minister Rafael Cruz, has said the terminology shouldn’t be “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” It should be “pro-life” or “pro-murder.”
But Cruz, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, knows the political drill. After Trump’s gaffe, he said, “Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing women; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.”
Other Republicans also knew the “right” answer, but Trump made the rookie mistake of thinking that if abortion is murder, women who get abortions must be murderers. Exploring pro-life websites, especially the comments sections, leaves plenty of confusion for the rest of us.
Two analogies prevail. Some argue that punishing the provider without punishing the woman is like convicting the hit man while letting the crime boss go free. Others prefer to think of abortionists as drug dealers and women as drug users. Most people agree that selling illegal drugs is worse than using them, but few think that users should get off scot-free.
It’s true that major pro-life groups generally agree that women who get abortions should not be punished. They argue that women, like their unborn babies, are victims of abortion, not its perpetrators. The real criminals are the doctors who provide abortions, especially, for some reason, those who do so for a profit.
It’s also true that women have not been prosecuted for abortions for much of world history. When laws banning abortion became widespread in the United States in the 19th century, women were considered such frail creatures that they were scarcely capable of thinking independently. They didn’t even win the constitutional right to vote until 1920.
If women can’t be trusted to distinguish between Trump and Cruz, how can they be expected to make rational decisions about their own families? But don’t try that argument in the 21st century, at least not around my house.
It’s also true that abortion bans historically have focused mostly on providers. In America, 19th century opposition to abortion seems to have coincided with the increased professionalization of medicine, which made abortion much safer and provided an incentive to force amateurs out of the abortion business.
But leaving abortion in the hands of doctors and their patients created other problems. Doctors were often free to provide abortions for “therapeutic” reasons, which they sometimes interpreted as the mental health of the mother. And who better to judge the effects of an unwanted pregnancy on mental health than the woman involved?
As laws against abortion became widespread and rigidly enforced, more women turned to illegal and dangerous abortions. That led to reform efforts, which led to Roe vs. Wade, and here we are.
After Trump’s remarks, many people pointed out that women already are being punished for getting abortions, even though abortion remains constitutionally protected. Laws passed in dozens of states have made access to abortion much tougher, especially in Texas, where at least 100,000 women have tried to end their own pregnancies, according to a University of Texas study.
Luckily for them, self-induced abortions also have gotten easier and safer, thanks to modern pharmacology. But if women become their own abortionists, aren’t we right back where Trump’s naïve answer put us?
You see, words really do matter. Pro-life forces didn’t have to use “murder” to describe abortion, even though they may truly believe that the pre-born deserve legal protection. They could have called it “manslaughter” or the more neutral “feticide” or even, heavens forfend, “justifiable homicide.”
But “murder” was settled upon because of its emotional power, and innocents like Trump can hardly be expected to know that the crime wasn’t meant to be enforced against women.
Our inability to talk honestly about what we really mean may explain why we haven’t made much progress since Augustine, the fifth-century theologian, put the whole abortion debate this way: “the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man’s power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb.”