This week a brouhaha broke out over conservative writer Kevin Williamson’s hiring and firing at The Atlantic. His hiring raised all sorts of questions about journalistic “balance,” the relative willingness of progressive and conservative opinion outlets to empower dissenting voices, and the quality of work that should or should not qualify a writer for a rare full-time paying gig in these lean days for the Fourth Estate. His firing, though, revolved around the revelation that on at least two occasions (once in a tweet, once in a podcast) he suggested that in a future criminalized abortion regime (which he very much favors), women having abortions might be punished – even by hanging.
A few observers, mostly Williamson’s conservative colleagues, are willing to blow this up into a First Amendment issue, which arguably conflates the right of expression with the right to a nice perch from which to opine.
But what’s getting less attention is the unsettling question Williamson raised that led to his firing. Yes, there remain murky controversies over exactly what he said when, and whether he was addressing past or future abortions, and whether he failed to disclose or properly characterize these utterance to his new employers. The simple fact remains: Williams is arguing that for those who think of abortion as homicide (meaning virtually all of those who self-consciously belong to the right-to-life movement), it’s logical to consider punishing the women who have abortions once the practice has finally been re-outlawed. The severity of the punishment he discussed – hanging –strikes me as a typically Williamsonian provocation, although one that got him fired. But at some, presumably less lethal level, it’s crossed many other minds in the right-to-life tribe, as evidenced by the defense for Williamson many offered that making abortion punishable by capital punishment would surely deter that option effectively, minimizing the actual number of hangings.
The other time this question came up in recent public discourse showed how touchy a subject this is for abortion-is-homicide believers. In March 2016, when Donald Trump told Chris Matthews during an interview that once abortion is criminalized again, that “there has to be some form of punishment” for the woman involved. Clearly, Trump (described by some conservative evangelical backers as a “baby Christian” just learning the ropes) hadn’t learned this was a big no-no among anti-abortion activists, who quickly brow-beat him into backtracking. National Right to Life explained the party line: “Unborn children and their mothers are victims in an abortion.”
Now it’s obviously terrible politics to publicly kick around punishments for an act that tens of millions of American women have already taken. But the “women are all victims, too” approach has its shortcomings as well, most notably its paternalistic treatment of poor, pitiful women as incapable of the moral agency involved in deciding to terminate their own pregnancies. Better to just shut up about it all.
But as Jill Filipovic pointed out after Trump’s gaffe, it’s far from an academic issue:
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.
Besides, notes Filipovic, the “punish the abortionist, not the woman” line doesn’t address the many varieties of self-induced abortions. What are you going to do then, RTLers?
It’s hard to believe that this question hasn’t occurred to them. And in fact, its inevitability was exposed by one of Williamson’s most passionate defenders, Federalist publisher Ben Domenech, who argues that the “punish the woman” POV is so obviously within the realm of the conceivable that censoring a writer for expressing it has to represent some sort of leftist witch hunt:
[W]hat ought to be the legal ramifications for tearing an unborn child apart [are] ramifications that ANY pro-lifer of any seriousness has wrestled with in conversation. Serious ethical and legal ramifications for destroying the unborn or the infirm are debated in philosophy classes every day – Williamson’s mistake, as an adopted son born to an unwed teenage mother, was being too honest about his belief that what he sees as the daily murder of infants should, in a more just society, have severe legal consequences.
Funny how full-time RTLers quickly shushed Donald Trump for following the same logic. I think they understand that a movement as honest as Domenech about the implications of its position would not for very long remain the big brawling power lobby with a hold on the GOP that it is today. Maybe political writers Domenech and Williamson should show a better grasp of politics.