Punishment and abortion

Seeking the Republican presidential nomination, businessman Donald Trump said he would like to see women punished, possibly with jail, if the abortion procedure were outlawed. Trump has been a buffoon on the campaign trail and few people believe his road to Cleveland conversion to pro-life; before becoming a candidate for the Republican nomination, Trump donated to Planned Parenthood and numerous pro-abortion politicians, including Hillary Clinton, and let it slip during this campaign that he would continue to fund PP because it “does great work.” A cynic might view Trump’s apparent gaffe as a misguided attempt to convince social conservative voters of his pro-life bona fides. It may have backfired. But should it have?

A topic seldom discussed by pro-lifers is what a law outlawing abortion would actually entail. The pro-life movement is in agreement that eventually abortion should be prohibited, but how that stricture would be reinforced is seldom explored. Who would be punished and how?

Most pro-lifers agree doctors should be punished, presumably with jail time, and eventually Trump released a statement reversing his view: only the doctor who committed the procedure “would be held legally responsibly, not the woman.” Indeed, physicians seem most culpable and they see the deadly fruit of their labour and understand what they are doing. Still, while the principle of punishing doctors who do illegal abortions is something about which pro-lifers can agree, what that punishment entails is hardly settled. If the informal survey taken by this paper of pro-life activists is any indication, there is no consensus what punishment doctors who carry out abortions should face. Many respondents said five to ten years, which would be less than the 25 to life that first-degree murderers face in Canada. Perhaps this makes some sense – it is possible that abortion is not exactly like other murders – but it also undermines our argument that abortion is the same as murder; it says that premeditated killing of a preborn child by a medical professional is not as serious as the murder of an already-born victim. That is incongruous with our rhetoric about abortion.

The same could be said of the general inclination among most pro-lifers that women should not face any punishment whatsoever. The public might consider such a view as incompatible with the moral seriousness with which the pro-life movement views eliminating the life of the unborn child in the womb. Is the disinclination to punish women a public relations ploy or is it a reflection of the belief that most women are coerced into having abortions or they are victims of circumstances beyond their control? Does not the latter view exculpate women of any moral responsibility for their actions?

We are nowhere near obtaining a law outlawing abortion, neither in the United States or Canada. But it behooves the pro-life movement to think seriously about what a ban on abortion looks like. (The Interim is agnostic on the issue at the moment.) Individually and as a movement, we should do some soul-searching to ensure that we are consistent in our defense of all human life and justice for all.

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