Posturing and self-deception aside, only a small minority of Americans truly believe that abortion is murder, and Donald Trump really stepped in it recently by exposing that fact. When he told Chris Matthews, “there has to be some form of punishment,” Trump was only being perfectly consistent, exposing the logical consequence of the anti-choice right's core moral argument: if abortion really is murder, then we're a nation full of murderers and tens of millions of women belong in prison — most logically, for life. “We have no choice,” as Trump has said in other contexts. “We have no choice.”
Obviously, virtually no one believes that, however. Most Americans get along with each other fairly well on a day-to-day basis. Even in a season of political acrimony, we still hold doors open for one another, share photos of cats, kids and grandkids on Facebook, say, “Have a nice day,” hokey as that may be. The idea that roughly every third woman you meet on any day is a depraved murderer who belongs behind bars just does not compute. And yet, if abortion is murder, it must be so. Murder one? Maybe not. But something serious. Murder two. Manslaughter. Something.
Hence, the vast disconnect — as large as the Grand Canyon — that needs to be thoroughly denied. The life-blood of the anti-choice movement is its stance of moral superiority, condemning abortion as murder. But that moral superiority rests on an accusation of guilt that even its leading voices are utterly unwilling to make — except, notably, for Personhood USA.
And so, predictably, we saw the instant chorus of leading anti-choice voices denying any interest in punishing women. But all that was a flat-out lie, as Jodi Jacobson pointed out at Rewire (formerly RH Reality Check):
Women who attempt to self-induce abortion are now routinely charged with crimes. In Georgia, Kenlissia Jones was arrested in 2015 for allegedly using misoprostol to self-induce her abortion. Jones was originally facing two charges: “malice murder” and “possession of a dangerous drug” (i.e. the misoprostol). The murder charge against Jones was dropped, but she still faces punishment for the drug charge. That same year in Arkansas a nurse, Karen Collins, was arrested and faced the charge of “performing an unlicensed abortion” (a class D felony in her state) for allegedly providing a drug to a woman that would allow her to terminate her pregnancy. And in Tennessee, Anna Yocca was charged with attempted murder for a failed self-induced abortion attempt with a coat hanger. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted murder charge but said they would still pursue criminal charges against Yocca, likely for aggravated assault.
Nor is it simply a matter of scattered individual cases. There is an organized effort afoot, as shown by a 2015 joint ProPublica/AL.com investigation, which found that “at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted across Alabama since 2006,” after the “personhood movement” got a child endangerment law, passed with meth lab explosions in mind, repurposed to target stillbirths, miscarriages and suspected self-abortions. If hundreds of women, almost all of whom wanted to be pregnant, have already been prosecuted in just one state thanks to the anti-choicers, just imagine what would happen nationwide if they had their way!
But that’s just the point — you’re not supposed to imagine it, or the entire anti-choice movement falls to pieces. And this is not just about the movement as a political force in America — though it is that, as well. It’s about the movement as a home for millions of Americans, who have — for whatever reasons — bought into a false and misleading creed, which ultimately deeply disserves them as well as all the rest of us.
No one knows this better than Fred Clark, whose Slacktivist blog has provided some of the most penetrating insights into that world in which he once lived. As Clark explained, Trump did not know the “Standard Answer” which Clark himself learned as a teenager when “my white evangelical tradition suddenly adopted and began enforcing a new essential dogma of anti-abortionism.” Like any dogma, it needed its weak points defended, and the question of punishing women for murder was certainly one. So he learned the Standard Answer by heart — and for a while it served him well:
The Standard Answer is this: “Of course no one is talking about putting women in jail. No one has ever said that’s what should be done. We would only punish the abortionists, not the women.”
The substance of the Standard Answer comes last because the substantial aspect — punish doctors, not women — isn’t coherent enough to bear the weight of a satisfactory answer. The load-bearing work is done prior to that insubstantial substance. The key component is the dismissive tone — all that “of course” and “no one is saying …” business that denies the legitimacy of the question and thus denies that any response needs to be substantial or logical or coherent. The boldness of this evasion is softened and diffused by the move from singular to plural and from the particular to a vague, undifferentiated “we.”
The Standard Answer, in other words, avoids engaging the question as “What do I think” by shifting the response to “What we say/think/believe is …” This may seem unimportant to the questioner, but it is vitally important to the answerer because, again, this is the primary function of the Standard Answer: reassuring oneself that an answer exists and that “we” have one, and that therefore I do not need to worry about it any further….
I relied on the Standard Answer when I was a good, faithful pro-lifer. It made the question go away, just as it was meant to do. The Standard Answer worked very well for me until one day, suddenly, it didn’t.
There’s a great deal going on in Clark’s description/analysis — and I urge everyone to read his post in its entirety. But one way to sum things up is that there's a clever narrative framework for convincing oneself that the group one belongs to has all the answers, so that one need not be troubled by any specific question. It’s quite a feat for a conservative movement that’s supposedly all about individual “personal responsibility.” Yet, it’s proven remarkably effective over the years.
For example, in 2007, when a brilliant short YouTube documentary, posing the question of punishment for women who get abortions, presented a sampling of responses from demonstrators at a site in Libertyville, Illinois. Uncertainty and puzzlement are far and away the most common responses. "I don't know. I hadn't thought about that,” “I'm not sure. I don't know,” “I don't have an answer for that,” or, more definitively, but still vaguely, “They are punished enough ... Their punishment is already upon them when they have an abortion.”
The almost universal expressions of puzzlement and uncertainty speak volumes in themselves. But scratch a bit beneath the surface and other surprises emerge as well. One respondent segued quickly from her initial uncertainty to what sounded like a pro-choice point of view. “You know, I never really even thought about that. I don't know,” she began. “That's probably her conscience going to be her guide.”
Another was quite certain the woman should not be punished, but aside from that seemed quite lost. “Just pray for them. I don't think they have to spend time in jail, or anything,” she responded initially. Pressed further, she said, “I don't think they should be punished, because the life has been taken, the crime has been done.”
But, "That's true of murder, too, isn't it?" the documentarian queries in response, leading her to mouth another standard trope: “It's kind of between her and God. She will get her punishment from God.”
"Then why should it be illegal?" the documentarian queries. "Because it's the taking of a life," she responds.
This is what lies beneath the pat Standard Answer — a turbulent sea of confusion. At the time, Anna Quindlen noticed the video and wrote about it for Newsweek. After taking note of the confusion described above, she wrote:
A new public-policy group called the National Institute for Reproductive Health wants to take this contradiction and make it the centerpiece of a national conversation, along with a slogan that stops people in their tracks: how much time should she do? If the Supreme Court decides abortion is not protected by a constitutional guarantee of privacy, the issue will revert to the states. If it goes to the states, some, perhaps many, will ban abortion. If abortion is made a crime, then surely the woman who has one is a criminal. But, boy, do the doctrinaire suddenly turn squirrelly at the prospect of throwing women in jail.
The good news, of course, is that the Supreme Court has not struck down Roe and returned abortion to the states. But the bad news is that we never have had that conversation that NIRH was hoping for — a conversation that would go to the very heart of whether anti-choice activism can even be taken seriously at all.
There was a bit of a mini-conversation, as the National Review gave a panel of anti-choice activists a platform to respond to Quindlen, but for the most part, they simply rehearsed their propaganda lines, doubling down on the obfuscation Not one of them gave a straight answer to Quindlen’s question, but their various narrative evasions nonetheless confirmed pro-choice advocates' point about what the overarching debate is really about: anti-choice advocates simply do not believe in women’s autonomy. If women do choose to have an abortion, there must be some kind of magic asterisk: they were coerced, confused, duped or just not paying attention. The ways of explaining it away vary considerably, but one way or another, the anti-choice advocates seem convinced that women do not actually want abortions, and so, if they do get them, then somebody else must be to blame.
Thus, we are told by three different people that women “are the second victims of abortion.” Another informs us that, “The reason pro-lifers appear taken back at this question is that they don’t relish the idea of anyone being thrown into jail.” Moreover, “Both sides agree that women don’t want to have abortions,” another informs us. So it must be the pro-choicers who are actually confused, demanding what nobody wants! And so, she concludes, “if women are doing something 3,000 times a day that they don’t want to do, what so-called ‘abortion rights’ has won us is not liberation.” Yeah, right.
One popular rhetorical ploy was to invoke past history — or at least, a sanitized version of it. “Women were not punished by the legal system before 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision and there is absolutely no drive to punish her now,” one participant informs us. “[I]t remains as true today as it was 200 or 400 years ago that going after the woman seems less important going after the industry,” writes another, unaware that there was no abortion industry 200 years ago, and that abortion was legal, at least up until quickening. “[C]onsistent state abortion policy for a century before Roe was not to prosecute women,” writes a third, who went on to say, “Leslie Reagan, in her 1997 book 'When Abortion Was a Crime,' admits that states did not prosecute women for their abortions and concedes that the purpose behind that law was not to degrade women but to protect them.”
Actually, that’s not what Reagan said at all. And the reality of how abortion came to be illegal in the first place is even more profoundly damaging to the anti-choice myth-makers, as it shows quite clearly that the criminalization of abortion was part of an earlier war on women, although it repeatedly pretended to help them. The look back in history she provides reveals much that is familiar, but far enough removed that the excuses wear exceedingly thin.
“The penalties imposed upon women for having illegal abortions were not fines or jail sentences,” Reagan wrote, “but humiliating interrogation about sexual matters by male officials—often while women were on their death beds—and public exposure of their abortions.” As for the purpose behind the law, it was decidedly anti-woman, as she explains in her introduction, drawing largely on the earlier work of James Mohr (Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy).
“Abortion was not always a crime,” Reagan explained in her introduction. Under common law — which conservatives ordinarily worship — abortions before quickening were legal during the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Indeed, the term abortion referred only to the miscarriages of later pregnancies, after quickening.” The earliest 19th century laws, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, actually were intended to protect women, they were “poison control measures designed to protect pregnant women… by controlling the sale of abortifacient drugs, which often killed the women who took them.” But abortion continued to be widely and openly practiced for decades after that.
The criminalization of abortion came about later, primarily as a result of the emerging orthodox medical establishment (physicians known as “Regulars”): “In 1857, the newly organized AMA initiated a crusade to make abortion at every stage of pregnancy illegal,” a struggle that lasted decades, “Through the 1870s, regular physicians across the country worked for the passage of new criminal abortion laws. In securing criminal abortion laws, the Regulars won recognition of their particular views as well as some state control over the practice of medicine.
But there were larger social forces at work as well — “gender, racial, and class anxieties.” As the birth rates of Yankees declined by mid-century amidst an influx of immigrants, many of them Catholic, there were fears of America being taken over:
Dr. Horatio R. Storer, the leader of the medical campaign against abortion, envisioned the spread of "civilization" west and south by native-born white Americans, not Mexicans, Chinese, Blacks, Indians, or Catholics. "Shall" these regions, he asked, "be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation." Hostility to immigrants, Catholics, and people of color fueled this campaign to criminalize abortion. White male patriotism demanded that maternity be enforced among white Protestant women.
Today’s anti-choice activists love to harp on the fact that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger subscribed to the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. But she was not a leader in the eugenics movement, nor did her work grow out of it. Attempts to paint Sanger as racist, while burying the role of Storer’s racist arguments in criminalizing abortion are a classic example of envious reversal, which conservatives frequently employ to claim the moral high ground.
Moreover, “The antiabortion campaign was antifeminist at its core,” Reagan noted. “Women were condemned for following ‘fashion’ and for avoiding the self-sacrifice expected of mothers. ‘The true wife,’ Storer declared, did not seek ‘undue power in public life, . . . undue control in domestic affairs, . . . [or] privileges not her own.’” The AMA’s antiabortion campaign fought against admitting women into the medical profession and it did so in ways that were heavily freighted with dishonest moral arguments, driven by their own highly questionable situation.
“For the specialists, whose interest in the female reproductive system raised questions about their sexual morality, the antiabortion campaign was a way to proclaim their own high morality in contrast to their competitors, their female patients, and even the ministers who tolerated abortion,” Reagan wrote, adding:
It was at the same time a backlash against the women's movement's critique of male sexual behavior and feminist claims to political power. Nineteenth-century feminists expressed their anger with male sexual domination and promiscuity in a number of movements, including the campaigns against prostitution and slavery and the fight for temperance. All sections of the women's movement advocated "voluntary motherhood," a slogan that addressed both men's sexual violation of their wives and women's desire to control childbearing. Women saw themselves as morally superior and urged men to adopt a single standard—the female standard of chastity until marriage, followed by monogamy and moderation. The campaign against abortion challenged this feminist analysis of men by condemning women for having abortions. Indeed, Storer compared abortion to prostitution and, in so doing, called into question all claims made by middle-class nineteenth-century women on the basis of moral superiority.
Looking back well more than a century, it’s relatively easy to see through the moral posturing involved in making abortion illegal in the first place. What’s more, the AMA was far more organized as a vast money-and-power seeking enterprise than any 19th century “abortion industry” ever was — another example of envious reversal in this story.
Setting aside everything else, it’s a laughable idea that male doctors fighting tooth and nail to keep women out of medicine had only the best interests of women at heart in making abortions illegal. But that’s exactly what the anti-choice false history demands that we believe. And that false history plays an integral role in propping up the anti-choice worldview, either explicitly as seen in several of the National Review responses to Quindlen, or implicitly, in the sweepingly false language of “traditional values” that seeks to obliterate the actual highly contested history that has lead us to where we are today.
Ordinarily, the 19th century is ancient history as far as most Americans are concerned, and the moral hypocrisies exposed by examining it factually seems very far removed, indeed. But Donald Trump’s gaffe — his failure to have learned the standard argument — has opened a picture window onto that past, a window that a whole chorus of anti-choice voices quickly arose to slam shut once again.
Trump’s momentarily-expressed honest answer not only inadvertently shed light on the self-deluding nature of the Standard Answer, as Fred Clark explained, or on the utter confusion (seen in the Libertyville video) that it is meant to hide, or on the moral incoherence and deceitfulness of the anti-choice establishment as sampled at the National Review. It also shed light on a failure of the pro-choice side as well.
The National Institute for Reproductive Health was right to want to take the contradictions around punishment exposed in the Libertyville video and make them the centerpiece of a national conversation, and Anna Quindlen was right to call attention as well. At the end of her piece, she wrote:
But there are only two logical choices: hold women accountable for a criminal act by sending them to prison, or refuse to criminalize the act in the first place. If you can't countenance the first, you have to accept the second. You can't have it both ways.
It’s not that the anti-choice side has no answers to the question Quindlen posed — it’s that their evasive, often fantasy-based answers raise even more embarrassing questions, as shown by my brief dip into Leslie Reagan’s illuminating book. The point of pushing for a discussion about punishing women for getting abortions is to shift the whole groundwork on which a deeply dishonest debate is based and to put forth a demand for honesty, in a debate long-plagued by the deepest forms of deceit. Once you start talking real concrete facts, instead of abstract wish-fulfillment lies, the entire nature of the public discourse irrevocably starts to change. Yet, the Libertyville video is nine years old, and pro-choice forces have failed to follow up on the fantastic opening that it provided. Donald Trump’s honest admission of what criminalizing abortion logically requires provided that opening, once again, before anti-choice activists quickly shut it down. And pro-choice activists were totally unprepared to seize advantage of this high-profile opportunity.
It’s time for that to change. The opening Donald Trump provided should be a wake-up call. The past few years have seen a revolution in racial justice organizing with the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s been a similar revolution on the economic justice front via the Fight For 15. Neither movement has achieved what they want — but both are moving things in a positive direction and inspiring others to join with them and see the world in their terms. It’s time for a similar revolution on the reproductive justice front. In fact, it’s long overdue.