Donald Trump’s abortion muddle continues to get muddier. As Cassy Fiano covered earlier, many pro-life leaders are upset with the presidential candidate for walking right into a rhetorical trap set for him by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. And now abortion defenders are exploiting it to attack the rest of us.
On Wednesday, Matthews asked him:
MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman.
TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form.
MATTHEWS: Ten cents? Ten years? What?
TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know.
Later that day, Trump released a statement more in line with pro-life conventional wisdom:
If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed – like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.
Those who’ve suggested this was a result of Trump not seriously thinking the issue through have it exactly right. He knew that to get the Republican presidential nomination he had to check off a few key boxes, the first of which is holding a nominally pro-life position. But he has shown virtually no interest in learning more than the bare minimum talking points necessary (pro-life with the usual GOP exceptions, judges who won’t legislate from the bench, etc.), so when a question requiring actual nuance is put to him, he reaches for what sounds vaguely like his idea of what pro-lifers would want to hear.
If any degree of actual reflection had led him to sincerely believe punishing women for abortions was appropriate, he would have stuck by it, just as he’s stuck to plenty of more shocking pronouncements. But he doesn’t, so upon discovering that he had his pro-life stereotype completely wrong, he dropped his answer and regurgitated the more orthodox answer that somebody gave him.
(For the record, Trump is also misstating Reagan’s position here. It is true that Reagan expressed openness to rape exceptions earlier in his career, but as President he came around to opposing them. Also unlike Trump’s pro-abortion past and incoherent pro-life present, Reagan carefully studied the issue before formulating an opinion, and when the abortion bill he signed as California’s governor proved to be more far-reaching than he expected, he was genuinely remorseful and dedicated the rest of his life to being a pro-life champion.)
But the damage has been done. At Rolling Stone, Bridgette Dunlap writes that Trump’s faux pas “was the logical extension of the Republican Party’s existing position on abortion”:
If, cornered as Trump was on Wednesday, a Republican is forced to acknowledge women who have abortions, the anti-abortion rules state that he must not treat them as people with agency who are responsible for their own actions […] He walked back his comments almost immediately, but he had no real reason to do so: If abortion were a crime, women trying to end their pregnancies would be punished — as they have been in the past and continue to be.
Nonsense. As many pro-life leaders have discussed, and as I covered in 2012, (1) the primary purpose of the law is to protect victims, and if punishing abortionists proves to be a sufficient deterrent, there would be no need to go further; and (2) laws are informed by the state of our culture, and it’s perfectly appropriate to factor in how widespread propaganda from government, media, and educational authorities has misled the public as to what abortion really is.
To take how long and how deeply women have been deceived about abortion’s true nature as a mitigating factor in their culpability isn’t simply turning a blind eye for political expediency or somehow denigrating their agency; it’s a perfectly just accommodation to make when society is transitioning out of some great collective injustice.
When states could ban abortion, before Roe, women were prosecuted, though not at the rates they would be today, in the era of mass incarceration[.]
Wrong. As Clarke Forsythe helpfully explains in the LA Times, most pre-Roe abortion laws targeted only the abortionist, because “prosecuting women is counterproductive to the goal of effective enforcement of the law against abortionists” and “male coercion, abandonment or indifference has been at the center of most abortions.” Some laws technically held women liable for participation in their own abortions, but they were virtually never used to prosecute—only two such cases were ever recorded, one of which was reversed. Even pro-abortion historian Leslie Reagan, Forsythe notes, has admitted this. Dunlap continues:
What may surprise many people is that there are places in the United States where women who are suspected of having illegal abortions are prosecuted even now. For example, an Indiana woman named Purvi Patel was convicted of feticide and neglect of a child after she sought treatment for a miscarriage and was accused of having tried to self-abort. She received a 20-year sentence (which she is appealing). And Jennie Linn McCormack was prosecuted in Idaho after she took abortion medication she had ordered off the Internet because she couldn’t afford to go to a clinic.
Dunlap’s description of the McCormack case is misleading (she illegally procured RU-486 for self-use in a mid-term abortion rather than going to an abortionist, she used it at least 9 weeks past abortionists’ own limit for the drug, and then put her dead baby in a box to freeze on a porch), and her characterization of the Patel case is an outright lie—Patel also took illegal drugs to self-abort, but when her son came out alive, she wrapped him in a bag, put him in a dumpster, and left him to suffocate to death. Does that sound like “seeking treatment for a miscarriage” to you?
These smears have come up before and abortion advocates eventually would have brought them up again, but it took Donald Trump handing them an invitation for the smears to get more attention than usual. The pro-life movement has strong opportunities right now to go on offense with Planned Parenthood’s crimes and the pro-abortion extremism of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the last thing we need right now is for someone who claims to represent us forcing pro-lifers to play defense.