As I began to realize a few days ago, when I spoke of the “Baffling Clash: Pro-Life Leaders v Donald J. Trump,” some of us cannot be part of movements.
As someone who believes every person’s inalienable right to life begins at conception, I’m saddened to discover I cannot be part of the pro-life movement. The insistence of this movement’s leaders on lockstep conformity to the women-who-abort-are-guiltless-victims position, however, has made clear both my ineligibility and the ineligibility of all who think the outlaw of abortion would require legal penalties against both sellers and buyers of the illegal service. I suppose I should thank Donald Trump, whose childlike innocence on the issue caused him to make remarks that brought down on him all the fury of the pro-life establishment (that is, all the professional activists who make their living leading the pro-life movement), and that simultaneously prompted assertions by this establishment’s representatives that “no one who is pro-life believes women should be punished for choosing abortion.” (Now, of course, Trump says the pro-life establishment’s view is his own and he just “misspoke.” If other politicians did this, Trump supporters would rightly accuse them of flip-flopping and pandering. Trump’s agents, however, have taken to the airwaves to convince everyone that all his statements are different ways of saying the same thing: #hypocrisy.)
I guess this means that, as far as the pro-life establishment is concerned, those of us unwilling to absolve women who choose abortion of all moral responsibility, even though we believe that personhood and the right to life begin at conception, don’t qualify as pro-life. I confess I can’t see how thinking that even women in difficult circumstances retain some degree of responsibility for their actions makes one less life-affirming than someone who thinks hard circumstances give women freedom to kill without guilt, provided they do so through third parties. Such, however, is the official view of the pro-life movement’s leadership, even though I can see no rational sense to it:
last line: "To suggest that women be punished for their decision is an inept and reckless statement and should be rescinded.”— Students for Life (@Students4LifeHQ) March 30, 2016
@frfrankpavone do you advocate for no penalties for other murderers? I can't believe what I'm hearing from you all. What a double standard!— Catholic Slant (@CatholicSlant) March 30, 2016
Now, if one believes that personhood begins at conception, and with it the inalienable right to life that entitles every person to protection under the law, which in turn requires just punishment of all who attempt to violate that right, there is simply no rational way to claim that anyone acting voluntarily and intentionally to bring about the death of an unborn person should be free from all punishment. As well, how this aborting-women-are-blameless stance fits with the pro-life statistic that most abortions currently performed are for “convenience” is worse than unclear.
So, pro-life leaders, please tell me in what possible world (in which you must believe you’re living) is voluntary hiring of a “doctor” to kill one’s unborn child rightly considered a guiltless act that should never be punished? What is the factor common to the life situations of all woman who ever choose abortion that invariably frees them of all moral responsibility? Difficult life circumstances, fear of financial ruin, fear of the need to abandon educational or career pursuits, pressure from family or a boyfriend—some of these might well incline a judge to lessen the sentence for violating a ban on abortion, but what judge or jury would consider acquittal based on any one, or on any combination, of such factors?
The only conclusion I can draw is that the pro-life movement is led by emotion-driven people whose long reliance on emotion in place of reason has made them incapable of seeing that their position is nonsense. Though I don’t doubt that the emotions involved are heart-in-the-right-place motivators to charitable action, and that they are in that sense laudable, they are a very bad guide to just lawmaking. Whatever the cause of these leaders’ stance, I cannot in good conscience support them, much though I share with them a belief in from-conception personhood and inalienable rights. (At least, I assume they share my belief in such personhood and rights. If they did not, that certainly would explain their willingness to absolve certain parties to abortion of all guilt.)
One organization I am disappointed to have to stop supporting is Care Net. This organization does such things as fund homes for unwed mothers and provide abstinence education. Its praiseworthy goal is to make choosing not to abort easier by reducing the circumstantial pressures motivating many decisions to abort. Alas, this organization has chosen to join others in condemning those of us unwilling to endorse the women-who-abort-are-guiltless-victims viewpoint. Though this organization was my Amazon Smile charity for some time, I’ve chosen a new charity:
I was surprised to discover that this organization had joined the women-who-abort-are-guiltless-victims chorus because its focus is not political activism but life-affirming charitable services that help reduce abortion frequency in the current legal-abortion order of things. (So long as it stuck to this and did not attempt to address the issue of lawmaking, its being emotion-driven was not a problem.) The article, “Why It’s Illogical for the Pro-Choice Movement to be Upset with Donald Trump’s Statement on Punishment for Illegal Abortions,” by Roland C. Warren and Vincent DiCaro (posted 31 March 2016, accessed 02 April 2016), claims to be addressing just the issue that has troubled me: logical consistency. The authors ask: “are both pro-lifers and pro-choicers being consistent with their own beliefs by suggesting that women who have abortions (if abortions are illegal) should not be punished”? They then promise to show “that pro-choice advocates are being inconsistent with their beliefs and pro-life advocates are being perfectly consistent with their beliefs by criticizing Trump.” Because the title calls pro-choice objections “illogical,” the article clearly means to have logical consistency in view. Since the consistency or inconsistency of those who support “abortion rights” is not my concern, I will pass over Warren and DiCaro’s treatment of that issue. All I will address here is their defense of the idea that post-ban abortion-seeking women should be excluded from legal penalty.
“For decades, even centuries,” they write, “pro-life people have argued that women are victims of abortion. Indeed…when abortion was illegal, the pro-life movement argued….that abortion providers were the perpetrators, women the victims, and therefore, punishment for illegal abortions…should be meted out to the providers alone.” If accurate, this is fascinating history, no doubt about it. Surely Warren and DiCaro know, however, that long endurance of a belief is no assurance of that belief’s logical consistency. The question is not whether people in the past have believed something someone today also believes, but whether the belief itself is rational. The following key question is not answered by this appeal to history: do women who voluntarily contract for the murder of their own children at the hands of abortionists bear no culpability whatsoever? That is what must be true if the pro-life establishment’s aborting-women-are-innocent position is to be deemed rational. But, unless women are subjected to forced abortions (as has happened in history), there seems no rational way to acquit them of all guilt in the murder of their unborn children. No matter how many people have believed them guiltless victims, and no matter how long those people have believed so, the fact that women who choose abortion are not guiltless does not change.
Warren and DiCaro admit that “the only instance in which you would not punish someone for doing something illegal is if that person did not have agency. They did not have real choice or autonomy.” Since they believe that, in a hypothetical future where abortion is illegal, no women who seek abortion should be punished, Warren and DiCaro must then also believe that no women who seek abortion have choice or autonomy. One either has choice, freedom to choose as one wishes, or one does not. How “real choice” differs from just “choice” isn’t clear, so I will simply speak of “choice,” or of “power of choice,” or of “free will.”
Like other leaders of the pro-life movement, Warren and DiCaro speak as though they express the views of all who are pro-life, characterizing pro-life opinion as uniform. They write: “Pro-lifers have always maintained that women [given their stance on non-punishment, Warren and DiCaro must here mean all women who abort] are manipulated by the multi-billion dollar abortion industry [which presumably would not exist were abortion illegal, unless as a black-market cartel] during a challenging, and often desperate, moment in their lives to have an abortion.” So far, I must admit, I’ve not heard how women who choose to seek abortion are deprived of free will and so freed from moral responsibility. Perhaps that is coming. Warren and DiCaro continue: “They are often coerced by the father of the baby or other family members into having abortions.” Here, one must ask: what do Warren and DiCaro mean by “coerced”? Actual physical force—say being etherized and put through the procedure while unconscious, or being forced to undergo the procedure at gunpoint—would mean a loss of choice. Angry shouting, cajoling, threats to withdraw support, and the like would not. In any case, the question of freedom of choice here seems one to be decided on a case-by-case basis in court. Surely there is no basis here for concluding that “all women who seek abortions are innocent and should never be subjected to punishment.”
Warner and DiCaro add: “They are misled or misinformed by pro-abortion advocates about the potential negative physical, emotional, relational and spiritual effects of abortion.” So, allegedly, all women who seek abortions are misled about how having abortions might negatively affect them. How is this relevant to the question of moral responsibility? Is one less culpable for arranging another person’s death because one is misled about how hiring someone to bring about that death might have negative effects on one? “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you should acquit my client as an accomplice in this murder because the professional assassin she hired told her she wouldn’t feel guilty later, would surely never develop an ulcer or headaches from the nagging remorse, would definitely not suffer lasting health problems from her accidental exposure to a small portion of the poison that killed her husband, and would, most importantly, never face conviction in court or condemnation by religious authorities for hiring him.” No doubt the jury would think it a shame that ethics among assassins had so degenerated as to produce such deceptive sales practices, but I doubt the woman accused could expect an acquittal on these grounds.
I’m sorry, Warner and DiCaro and Care Net, you’ve failed to persuade me that “all women who seek abortions are innocent and should never be subjected to punishment” is a rational position to hold. I see only wild, emotion-drive over-generalization, along with a praiseworthy desire to be merciful being carried too far, to the point where it overturns equal justice under the law.
This is, it may be worth emphasizing, a debate about law and proper punishment under the law. Divine and interpersonal forgiveness should not be confused with freedom from legal penalty. God can forgive repentant sinners for whatever sins they’ve committed, even when those sins are such crimes as murder, but God’s ability and willingness to forgive does not grant to human lawmakers an equivalent power and authority. Individuals may likewise forgive sins against themselves, choosing not to seek any sort of “pay back” through personal vengeance or through the more civilized filing of a lawsuit, but this individual freedom does not grant to individuals who make laws freedom to forgive whom they will for crimes against others.
One more thing may be worth noting. If the pro-life establishment is correct in thinking that all women facing unintended pregnancies are helpless and fall easily and completely under others’ control, more than excluding them from punishment for hypothetically illegal abortions must be considered. For instance, people so easily deprived of free will should not be voting in elections, so clearly the suffragettes led us down the wrong path. These delicate flowers with no wills of their own and no moral responsibility for their actions must be protected, not made subject to manipulation by politicians and their PACs.
With that final point, I bid this movement a sad farewell, though I retain my belief in the inalienable right to life of every person from conception, remain wholly opposed to the so-called “pro-choice” viewpoint, and retain my hope that one day the laws of all nations will recognize the from-conception right to life, and that one day the authorities of all nations will defend born and unborn persons’ lives, and will, when that defense fails, justly punish all who choose, acting either directly or through paid agents, to kill the innocent.