Punishing Mothers for Abortion?

Punishing Mothers for Abortion?

In this year, 2016, the Republican nomination process has been the most entertaining reality show on television, but the other night the show took a strange turn. Donald Trump said something that has angered both the right and the left of the political spectrum, which is not surprising or unusual. But what is surprising is that what he said should have been supported by the right. In fact, his position is the only logical one given the rhetoric of the Pro-life movement.

Let’s wade into this controversy and see where the logic takes us.

In a recent interview on MSNBC, Donald Trump suggested that if abortion became illegal, then women who get abortions should face some sort of punishment. At first glance, I see nothing controversial about someone saying that if “X” became illegal (whatever it is), then violating the law with regard to “X” should involve some sort of punishment. Generally speaking, illegal activities carry penalties for those who are caught doing them.

For this statement, however, he was denounced by his primary rival, Ted Cruz. This is not surprising, since they are competitors. However, he was also denounced by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) – a prominent pro-life advocacy group.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, here is Cruz’s statement, taken from his website:

“On the important issue of the sanctity of life, what’s far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it’s also about the mother — and creating a culture that respects her and embraces life. 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.”

And here is NRLC Political Director Karen Cross:

“For years, for our history, we in the Right to Life movement have been opposed to imposing penalties on women who have abortions. We see them, we see both the unborn child and the mother as victims in an abortion.” (Quoted from the WV Metro News, March 31, 2016)

Now before we compare what they say to the pro-life position, let’s define that position. There are, as I see it, two different pro-life umbrellas. The first is based on practical considerations: abortion represents a failure of some kind. Perhaps the situation was the result of a failure of education, contraception, broken relationships, poverty, or of a less-than-ideal welfare state. Since elective abortion, on this view, represents an unpleasant symptom of some underlying problem, the goal would be to pursue policies that would reduce the number of abortions performed by solving those problems. From what I can tell from his public statements, President Obama is pro-life under this definition. The “safe, legal, and rare” phrase from Bill Clinton is another example of this position. I believe it “counts” as a pro-life position since those who hold it consider abortion to be a negative and then also take steps to reduce its occurrence. It is quite different from a position that abortion is a positive social good (for an example, read Valerie Tarico’s article in Salon advocating a fully pro-abortion view), yet it is the weaker of the two pro-life positions.

The second pro-life position casts the issue in moral terms: the unborn life is not merely a potential human. Instead it is, in fact, fully human from the moment of conception. Therefore, to purposefully destroy that life is murder. Perhaps it is even worse, since the unborn child is the most vulnerable of the human species, the one most deserving of its mother’s protection. We should have the same kind of moral outrage toward an elective abortion that we would have toward any other act of violence against children. According to this view, an elective abortion is an extreme act of child abuse.

The difference between these two views is analogous to the difference between someone who is a vegetarian for health reasons (practical) and someone who is a vegan because they believe that killing and eating animals for our own enjoyment is evil (moral).

What I find interesting about this dust-up over Donald Trump’s comments is that I always thought that the NRLC and Ted Cruz were moral pro-life advocates rather than practical pro-life advocates. When asked about abortion, Ted Cruz stated that he believed in the sanctity and dignity of human life. Likewise, the NRLC does not shy away from calling the fetus a “baby” and stating that life begins at conception – in fact its website is full of articles arguing for the personhood of the unborn. Yet if we look at these two statements responding to Trump, Cruz and Cross cannot possibly be moral pro-life advocates without a severe case of cognitive dissonance. In order to see why, try this experiment: replace abortion with an ethically equivalent action. If they are advocating a practical position, we can replace abortion with something similarly impractical and the statement will make sense. Let’s try Karen Cross’s statement and switch abortion with drug abuse:

“For years, for our history, we in the drug prevention movement have been opposed to imposing penalties on drug users. We see them, we see both the drug user and the people they hurt as victims of the drug trade.”

That sounds reasonable, no? Now we can switch abortion with another crime just as heinous on the moral position. Let’s try regular homicide:

“For years, for our history, we in the Crime Prevention movement have been opposed to imposing penalties on people who kill others. We see them, we see both the murder victim and the murderer as victims in a homicide.”

That sounds like the worst kind of evil doublespeak. Now let’s do the same with Cruz’s statement, again with drug enforcement:

“On the important issue of the war on drugs, what’s far too often neglected is that being against drug abuse is not simply about the drugs; it’s also about the users— and creating a culture that respects them and understands their struggle. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing drug users; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift that they are.”

Oddly enough, that sounds like something one of the end-the-war-on-drugs pundits might say. It does not sound contradictory or monstrous. Again, let’s try rewriting his statement with something morally terrible:

“On the important issue of child abuse, what’s far too often neglected is that being against abuse is not simply about the child; it’s also about the parents— and creating a culture that respects them and embraces their role in the child’s life. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing parents; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.”

Like our second modification to Cross’s statement, this makes no sense at all. If we valued children, we would protect them from those who abuse them. If we believed that child abuse was morally evil in the highest degree, we would be advocating the harshest sentences for those who would harm the innocents. I tried this experiment with both morally outrageous crimes (rape, police brutality, human trafficking, etc…) and mere economic crimes (petty theft, property damage) and found them to give identical results. I see no way to make the perpetrator and victim morally equivalent (by declaring them both victims) without also denying the moral significance of the action.

The NRLC and Ted Cruz have made statements that cannot be reconciled to the moral pro-life position. Rather, their language fits better with a practical pro-life position instead: a position that regards abortion as an unpleasant action that should be minimized as much as possible. But morally evil? The murder of a human being? Definitely not. That would mean that those who did it would be deserving of punishment. According to these statements from Cruz and Cross, poisoning a stray cat (a class A misdemeanor in Texas) is deserving of greater punishment ($4,000 for a first offense) than killing your own unborn child.

What is most ironic about this situation is that Cruz’s statement is titled: “Donald Trump Hasn’t Seriously Thought Through the Issues.” On the contrary, it seems to me that Trump is the one who truly understands the logical outcome of the moral pro-life position.

I welcome your comments – do you think it is possible to reconcile their statements with the moral pro-life position I have outlined?

7 responses

  1. The only possible way I can see to continue to hold women who seek abortions blameless would be to apply the kind of thinking that John Finnis applies in his essay “Abortion and Health Care Ethics”. He distinguishes between formal participation and material participation. Formal participation in an evil act is intentional and goal oriented towards evil, and as such it is always immoral. Material participation, on the other hand, contributes to immoral actions but does not involve willing the immoral act. Finnis further explains that some material participation may be immoral if it is unfair, willfully ignorant of immorality, or if it is willfully setting a bad example.

    He argues that a surgeon who performs an abortion acts formally since they must know what they are doing to perform the procedure. Finnis also argues that a nurse might prepare a woman for an abortion but need only materially participate and in essence may be innocent so long as the nurse is fair, accidentally ignorant of the likely outcome of the procedure (a possibility which indeed strains the credibility of the argument), and avoids doing anything scandalous. However, I would argue that given that the nurse, also a medical professional, would have to be knowledgeable about what procedure is being planned in order to prep the patient then the nurse can’t possibly be ignorant and so their material participation still constitutes a moral failure.

    The real twist in the article comes when Finnis applies this rubric to a woman seeking an abortion. He implies that at worst a pregnant woman is only ever materially participating since her consent is always given in a state of emotional upheaval and distress. So the idea would be that a pregnant woman who has taken leave of her senses is acting in a way she thinks is fair and even though she is in error the error comes from a place of ignorance of the immorality of her actions. Neither does she intend to set a bad example since her emotional upheaval prevents her from planning anything long-term. So a pregnant woman is not guilty of the murder of her fetus even if she consents to an abortion since she is in what amounts to a kind of prolonged psychotic break from reality.

    Finnis does not make clear whether this is the state of all pregnant women, or whether it is just the state of pregnant women who seek abortions. If it is the former then he has an argument, albeit a troubling misogynistic one, and if it is the latter then he is simply begging the question. Although the notion that pregnant women can’t be held responsible for their actions seems to have far reaching implications beyond just this issue.

    • Thank you for your insightful comment. Valerie Tarico made a similar point on her blog today.

      She wrote: “But to say that women are victims of abortion, implies an even uglier attitude toward females, one with implications that go far, far beyond abortion. The Christian Right wants to thread a bent needle. They want to argue that if a woman goes to a doctor to get an abortion, the doctor is a criminal and the woman is not—even after signing informed consent paperwork, being subjected to a forced vaginal ultrasound, and returning to the clinic two or three times to get the procedure done. What does that say about us?”

      I’ll answer her rhetorical question: it means that women are no more responsible than children and cannot be trusted to manage their own selves. If a woman seeking abortion is unable to understand the morality of her own actions due to “emotional upheaval and distress” then she is not competent to make medical decisions in the first place.

      If I were a woman, I think I would be insulted.

      • Also – I don’t recall Finnis defending this position in the article you mention. I thought he only held out the possibility that the abortion provider’s immoral commitment would be greater since he was not in emotional distress, but operating a business.

        Could you link to the place where he states that the mother would then not be formally participating? I’m curious.

        Though I think your point stands that claiming that women have no moral agency in abortion is misogynistic.

    • I originally read the article in an anthology so I don’t have a link, but here is the relevant quote. This is also the only place in the entire section on participation where Finnis hints at the moral culpability of women who seek abortions.

      “Hospital managers who want every patient to give written and full consent to operations must want women who come to the hospital for abortions to consent precisely to abortion; so these managers willy-nilly encourage the women’s immoral willing of abortion; indeed the manager’s immoral commitment of will may well be greater than that of women whose consent is given in a state of emotional upheaval and distress.”

      Indeed you are correct that he does not directly state that women are only materially participating, that is my interpretation of what he has provided. Earlier he distinguishes formal participation by explaining that it involves: “Anyone who commands, directs, advises, encourages, prescribes, approves, or actively defends doing something…’formal’ (intended) cooperation of those who (for whatever reason and with whatever enthusiasm or reluctance) will the successful doing of the immoral act.”

      Given how he defines matieral participation, as I discussed in my first post, then the implication is that if a woman is participating (i.e. if she chooses to be present and is not forced or coerced) then she can only be materially participating. Although it may seem that she could be capable of formal participation insofar as she attempts to will the success of the abortion Finnis mitigates this and, as far as I can tell, downgrades it to mere material participation given the woman’s emotional state.

      The key difference is that formal participation must be done for some reason and to bring about the immoral action. Material participation is not aimed at the completion of the immoral action, and it seems that an important factor in this is the lack of reason for the material participator. The nurse who is fair, accidentally ignorant of the procedure, and not scandalous is the paradigm case in the article since the nurse does not act from any investiture of reason in the outcome of the abortion. Likewise the woman, who is not behaving in a rational manner as Finnis clearly claims, must likewise be capable of only material participation.

  2. I found another one this evening, so this is probably going to be the standard response of the pro-life movement consolidating around Ted Cruz.

    Gary Bauer (Former FRC president and current pro-life activist) has also used the same rhetoric in a recent Washington Examiner article. He states: “No serious leader in the pro-life movement advocates punishing women if abortion is banned. The pro-life position has been absolutely clear: Every abortion negatively affects two people, both the mother and her child.”

    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to rewrite the statement with both a peccadillo and a morally heinous crime. See which one fits better.

    • Thank you for the linked article, Valerie.

      Your “beyond abortion” strategic plan is an excellent example of what I’m calling the practical pro-Life position.

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