The success of Donald Trump stems from one major factor: the perception that he tells it like it is because he’s beholden to no one. Whether Trump actually does tell the truth is a different question—one more often answered in the negative—but Wednesday, he did something rare for a Republican politician: he told the truth, saying that if abortion were illegal, women should be punished. (He later walked back his comments).
Commentators on the left erupted with outrage, and on the right with denial. “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion,” said Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund in a statement. “We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List in a statement. “Punishment is solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of one life and the grave wounding of another.”
And so went the usual anti-abortion claims: Outlawing abortion should punish abortion providers, not women. Women who have abortions are ignorant victims, coerced or tricked into forsaking their true desire for motherhood by greedy doctors who exploit them for financial gain.
These are lies. But they also reveal an important idea underpinning the anti-abortion-rights movement in the U.S.: It’s not about the life of the embryo or fetus. It’s certainly not about helping or protecting women. It’s about hostility to women’s social advancement, which has been rapid, and which would have been wholly impossible without access to contraception and abortion. And it’s not just Trump whose antipathy toward women’s rights and freedoms plays out particularly pronouncedly around abortion rights. It’s Ted Cruz, it’s the anti-abortion movement, and it’s most of the Republican Party.
The argument that women would not or should not go to jail for abortion is absurd when one notes that there are women in the United States who have, in fact, gone to jail for abortion; some are sitting in jail right now. Jennifer Whalen, a mother in Pennsylvania, was prosecuted for getting abortion-inducing drugs for her daughter. Purvi Patel is currently sitting in an Indiana prison for allegedly self-inducing her own abortion. And it’s not just abortion. Prosecutors have charged dozens of women with serious crimes including drug trafficking and murder for using drugs while pregnant. When South Carolina passed a law in 1997 qualifying fetuses as persons and harm to them as child abuse, the Attorney General’s Office announced it would prosecute women who had post-viability abortions for any reason, and that it would charge them with murder and potentially seek the death penalty. If a woman takes drugs and has a miscarriage or her child dies soon after birth, she faces jail time in many parts of the U.S. Do we really believe that a woman who pays someone to end her pregnancy won’t be treated the same way?
When you make something illegal, it comes with penalties—this is how criminal law works. It’s certainly how it works in El Salvador, where women are in jail, some for having miscarriages the state believes were abortions. It’s how it works in Rwanda, where rape survivors sit in prison for ending their pregnancies. It's how it works in Ecuador, Malaysia, Mexico, Bolivia, the Philippines—the list of where ending a pregnancy can land you behind bars goes on.
American anti-abortion advocates say they would target abortion providers instead of women, because it’s apparently more acceptable to throw doctors in prison for providing care that saves women’s lives every single day. Even if you think that sounds OK, it belies an ignorance of how illegal abortion often works. Trained clinicians able to provide safe and legal abortions, like we have at women’s health clinics across America, are luxuries unimaginable to many women worldwide. Today, in places where abortion is outlawed, there are still some illicit providers who offer surgical abortions. But more often there’s no trained doctor at all: There’s a sister, a mother, a friend, a classmate, a friendly pharmacist, who helps to get misoprostol or other abortion-inducing pills into the hands of a pregnant woman. When these pills are legit and the woman adheres to protocols for misoprostol use approved by the World Health Organization, these clandestine abortions are often very safe and effective, which is why far fewer women die of unsafe abortions today than they did two decades ago. Other times, though, there’s the woman who throws herself down the stairs, or asks her boyfriend to punch her in the stomach, or takes a tincture or tea her auntie says will make her period come, or inserts a stick or a knitting needle or a fireplace poker into her vagina.
In other words, it’s often the woman herself who is the abortion provider. When it’s not her, it’s often her friends and her family and her loved ones. Jail abortion providers and you are jailing women and the people who love them.
It’s also worth noting that when you make abortion illegal, any death of a fetus or embryo becomes suspect. Just as the death of an infant may lead doctors and law enforcement to suspect child abuse and engage in an investigation, so, too, would miscarriages have to cue scrutiny into the woman’s actions. Anti-abortion activists are also not satisfied to simply outlaw abortion; they want to enshrine into law that personhood exists at the moment of fertilization (they’ve tried to pass such laws in a handful of states, and they’ve failed miserably). That certainly fits with their narrative that life not only begins at conception, but that a fertilized egg is a human being deserving of life and respect and legal protection.
It’s an ideologically tidy argument, but it gets messy when confronted with real life. Most fertilized eggs never make it to birth. About half never implant in the uterine wall and are naturally flushed out of a woman’s body, which is why actual medical doctors define pregnancy at the point of implantation, not fertilization. Others do implant, but are lost in early miscarriages, many of which go unnoticed. Still others implant outside of the uterus, often in the fallopian tubes, where they can never grow into a baby but can rupture and kill the woman carrying them. And others develop further, turning into fetuses that are lost in later miscarriages. Establish personhood at the moment of fertilization, and you’ve got an astronomical death rate on your hands.
This, too, points to a fundamental inconsistency in the mainstream anti-abortion view: If a fertilized egg really is a human being, imbued with as much of a right to life as you or I, where are the efforts to curb such a high death rate? Why the focus on abortion, which ends the lives of far fewer embryos and fetuses than Mother Nature herself?
The response from anti-abortion advocates here is that the millions and millions of fertilized egg deaths are natural, while abortion is intentional. Nowhere else, though, is this the standard for protecting human life. Children in the U.S. used to die in relatively high numbers from natural causes, and so did women in childbirth, and so still do people die from cancer and AIDS and Alzheimer’s and heart disease; we have not collectively shrugged our shoulders and said that it’s natural so we won’t worry about it. Billions of dollars have been put into global efforts to fight the kinds of preventable diseases that kill millions of children, and billions more into researching vaccines and treatments and cures. Yet there has been no concerted anti-abortion effort to demand research funding into why all of these fertilized eggs die, or to find a cure.
Perhaps that’s because even the most active anti-abortion advocates know the truth is that a fertilized egg is not the same as a 3-year-old, and they do not genuinely believe that it has the same right to life.
Want more evidence? There is now a wealth of research on what decreases the abortion rate and what increases it. One thing that doesn’t seem to have much of an impact is legality. When abortion is legal, abortions happen; when it’s illegal, abortions continue to happen, they just happen clandestinely. Some of them are safe, but others aren’t, and many women end up hurt or dead.
What has been shown over and over to decrease the abortion rate is access to affordable contraception, especially long-acting methods like IUDs; the countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world not only offer abortion legally and often for free, but also make birth control easy to get, offer comprehensive sex education in schools, and don’t rely primarily on shame or fear to keep young people from having sex. Yet not a single major American anti-abortion organization supports affordable contraception access. None of them advocate for comprehensive sex ed.
Instead, many of them actively oppose birth control, particularly the most reliable kinds. In Colorado, for example, an innovative family planning program gave free IUDs to more than 30,000 women who wanted them. The state immediately saw 40% drop in unintended pregnancies and a 35% decline in abortions, and saved taxpayers $80 million in Medicaid costs. Seems like the definition of a successful anti-abortion, cost-saving program, something one would think the GOP would trumpet. Instead, anti-abortion groups opposed it, and so Republican politicians cut it. Why? Because as one pastor put it, abstinence until marriage and then embracing as many children as God gives you is the only acceptable way to live your life, and “Let us turn to God, and not to the state, to find the best ways for ourselves and our children.”
Restricting access to birth control and abortion is one of the most effective ways to stymy women’s successes and freedoms. Today, the average American woman gets married at 26, at which point she has had close to a decade of sexual experiences. All around the world, the age of sexual initiation is more or less the same—in one’s mid to late teens. The question isn’t whether and when young people have sex; it’s whether sex leads to pregnancy and childbearing, and then whether having a child derails women's life plans and goals. On an individual level, there are some young women who are able to give birth young and still stay on an upwardly mobile path—graduating high school, going to college, getting a job. But that’s not the norm. More often, early childbearing means it’s all the harder to stay in school and later to have the freedom to pursue whatever one wants. These are burdens that have always fallen on young women, while young men have remained at liberty to move up in the world.
Certainly if young women choose to have and continue pregnancies, they should not only have that right, but should also have the kind of social support that will allow them to parent and to stay afloat—social support programs that, notably, anti-abortion Republicans routinely try to cut.The plan, again, isn’t to make parenthood easier or to make motherhood safer. It’s to keep women constrained into a role conservative lawmakers have decided is better for them, against all the evidence provided by women themselves. Look around: When you offer women options and freedoms, they take them. And many women know better than anyone that birth control—and abortion access, if that birth control fails—are what offer them financial security, the future they strive for, and the family they want to build.
Because very little of the broader anti-abortion view is politically convenient, you see anti-abortion groups falling back on the claim that fertilized eggs are people and abortion is murder. Which brings us back to Donald Trump.
If anti-abortion advocates sincerely believe abortion is murder, they should also say that women have to be punished for it. If a fetus is the same as a 5-year-old, then a woman who ends a pregnancy should be just as guilty of murder as a woman who pays a hit man to kill her kindergartener. Claiming ignorance that murder was murder wouldn’t work.
It’s an ugly thought, and it’s electorally and socially unpopular, and that’s why some of them don’t say it out loud; others realize that while they may find abortion morally wrong, they don’t in their heart of hearts believe removing an embryo from a woman’s body is the same as slaughtering a 5-year-old. But start making those kinds of distinctions and the whole case against abortion falls apart.
The outrageous thing isn’t Donald Trump’s original comment. It’s that so few in the mainstream political establishment have bothered to interrogate the reality of the anti-abortion position and its stranglehold on Republican Party policies. When you do, you see that punishing women for making their own reproductive choices isn’t a defective, offensive answer. It’s the entire plan.