God knows I am rarely inclined to agree with Kevin Williamson, the conservative writer recently hired, then almost immediately fired, by the Atlantic. I certainly do not share his views on abortion. Yet, when I ponder the revelation over which Williamson was fired – that of having stated publicly, emphatically and more than once his belief that women who have abortions should face major punishment, up to and including the death penalty – I find myself amazed that this can possibly have been considered any revelation at all.
As anti-abortion positions go, Williamson’s ought to come neither as a surprise nor as an outrage, but as a given. From any contention that an action should be illegal, there flows, naturally and necessarily, the contention that people who take that action deserve to be prosecuted. As concerns the action of murder, it is to be hoped that offenders will be convicted and severely punished; and in the case of conscious, willful, premeditated murder, more severely punished still.
Therefore, provided one favors the death penalty, as many anti-choice Americans do, it isn’t Williamson’s view that women who have abortions should pay, possibly with their own lives, that is truly stunning. It is the fact that the pro-life movement has gotten away for so long with a strategy of pairing volcanic hostility toward abortion with a policy of complete impunity for the women who choose it. In fact, in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump stated that women who had abortions ought to incur “some kind of punishment,” it wasn’t us feminazis who had the biggest coronary. It was Trump’s newfound fans in the pro-life leadership, who hastened to quash one of the only rational remarks their hero has ever made.
Understand, I am not addressing here the question of whether abortion ought to be legal, but strictly the operating logic of those who argue most passionately that it should not be.
By that logic and the rhetoric it unleashes, abortion is murder most foul. Doctors who perform abortions are butchers. The clinics where they perform them are slaughterhouses. Planned Parenthood is a slaughterhouse and a distributorship for discarded baby parts. Public figures who favor – or even tolerate -- abortion rights have the blood of the innocent on their hands. Yet, bizarrely exempt from any accountability whatsoever are the mothers who, in this scenario, choose to kill their own children.
Abortion being an intrinsically wrenching subject, it is routinely discussed, by both sides, in terms of its most wrenching examples. In real life, though, those examples illustrate far more exception than rule. Most abortions are not had by minors or the mentally incompetent; nor by victims of rape, incest, or coercion, nor by mothers anywhere near the brink of giving birth, nor by women who would otherwise die. Most abortions are had in the first trimester by adult women who choose to terminate their pregnancies. Whether such women experience their own abortions as terrible tragedies, as no big deal, or as one of the millions of possibilities in between, it is fair to assume that just about all of them know exactly what they are doing. After all, having an abortion is not like flying into a rage, speeding through a red light at a crosswalk, or killing a person one had merely meant to rough up. If a fetus – or indeed, to adopt the current pro-life perspective, a zygote -- constitutes a human life, then an abortion is purposefully intended to end that life. This abortion needs to be requested, scheduled and paid for. It will not be performed on a patient who turns up intoxicated. Therefore, whether or not it is an atrocity, an abortion is not an accident.
All this leaves pro-life advocates with only three non-Williamson frameworks in which to fit any women who may manage to have abortions, should their movement succeed in making the procedure illegal. One: abortion, though wrong, is actually a much more complicated moral-hence-legal proposition than flat-out murder, and therefore it should not be treated as such. Two: abortion is flat-out murder, but pregnant women should be assumed to lack the intelligence and moral rectitude to realize this, and thus be spared the consequences of defying the law. Three: abortion is murder, women ought to know this full well, and therefore, women who opt for abortions should, if caught, be punished -- but, at least for the time being, saying anything like that could alienate tons of swing voters, so nothing like that must be said.
Clearly, framework number one requires a nuanced, shades-of-gray discussion of the whole issue, in which activists show zero interest. Framework number two requires that grown women be treated as moral wards of the state, a concept which, should it ever be spelled out, stands to repulse lots and lots of ladies. So it seems safe to conclude that today's dominant pro-life strategy reflects number three: a politically convenient, morally and intellectually preposterous positing of abortion as a heinous crime that is not committed by the woman who seeks, schedules, very often finances, and undergoes it. Like him or not, Williamson is right to expose this for the absurdity it is. Meanwhile, the likes of NARAL and Planned Parenthood should hope he does so every chance he gets. For whatever lefty pressure may have led the Atlantic to toss Kevin Williamson, it’s not the pro-choice movement that his very cold, very clear reasoning on abortion stands to harm.