Conservative political writer Kevin Williamson availed himself of an opportunity at The Wall Street Journal to reflect at considerable length on his recent dismissal by The Atlantic in response to a controversy over some things he once (or actually twice) said about women who had abortions deserving “hanging” in a hypothetical world of criminalized abortions.
His very interesting column is mostly about the implications of a “Twitter mob” intimidating The Atlantic into un-hiring him, based on (he says) a deliberate misunderstanding of what he was trying to do in raising the issue of abortion sanctions. He confirms my own impression that in talking about “hanging” people he was engaging in a “provocation” designed to force a more honest discussion of abortion policy, not making a “public policy recommendation.” But after insisting (as he has in the past) that he doesn’t even favor capital punishment, much less capital punishment for abortion, Williamson also suggests the question of sanctions is not only legitimate but morally compelling:
Let’s not equivocate: Abortion isn’t littering or securities fraud or driving 57 in a 55-mph zone. If it isn’t homicide, then it’s no more morally significant than getting a tooth pulled. If it isn’t homicide, then there’s no real argument for prohibiting it. If it is homicide, then we need to discuss more seriously what should be done to put an end to it.
Williamson also complained that all sorts of people and periodicals who condemned his “provocative” remarks on abortion and “hanging” could have gone to the trouble of asking him what he thought:
The remarkable fact about all this commentary on my supposedly horrifying views on abortion is that not a single writer from any of those famous publications took the time to ask me about the controversy. (The sole exception was a reporter from Vox.) Did I think I was being portrayed accurately? Why did I make that outrageous statement? Did I really want to set up gallows, despite my long-stated reservations about capital punishment? Those are questions that might have occurred to people in the business of asking questions.
Since the column rather conspicuously did not answer the question of what Williamson did think an appropriate sanction for having an abortion might be in a criminalized abortion context, I figured I’d take his advice and ask him about it in an email:
[H]ere’s my question: what is your “public policy recommendation” on appropriate punishment for women having abortions in a hypothetical criminalized abortion regime? You’ve made it clear you think there should be some serious sanctions, and that your reference to capital punishment was made to force people on both sides of the subject think more clearly about the logic of their positions. That leaves a lot of middle ground. Any thoughts you’d like to get on the record?
Williamson responded promptly, but didn’t answer the question:
We have fifty states with fifty different political environments, and I would be surprised if, in a post-Roe world, the statutory situation in Oklahoma looked very much like that of Connecticut. People on the pro-choice side seek to shift the conversation to the question of the specifics of criminal sanction for obvious and shallow rhetorical purposes — because that’s an easy way to whip up emotional hysteria, preempting meaningful discourse rather than enabling it. The obviousness and stupidity of that gambit should be fairly obvious to any reasonably intelligent and fair-minded adult, but those are in unfortunately short supply.
So I tried again, seeking a bigger-than-a-breadbox, smaller-than-a-Buick idea of Williamson’s views:
I feel compelled to ask the obvious follow-up question: Since my original question involved sanctions in a hypothetical criminalized abortion regime–understanding, of course, that this would not happen in all states in a post-Roe environment–what would you advise state lawmakers who stipulate that abortion is homicide to provide in the way of sanctions on women having abortions? Is capital punishment off the table? Is imprisonment off the table?
And then Williamson slammed the door shut:
As noted, my original observations on this subject, including the Infamous Tweet, speak to the very dishonesty and stupidity of the stratagem upon which you are here relying. I can’t believe that you are in fact unaware of my opposition to capital punishment.
I guess that means he is indeed saying “capital punishment is off the table,” but isn’t willing to say anything else, since clarifying his views on a subject he chose to bring up and addressed as recently as this very day would be playing into my “strategem” to find out what he thinks.
For the record, I am not trying to “whip up emotional hysteria” on the subject of abortion sanctions but rather to cast some light on an enduring problem for the Right-to-Life movement that I discussed in an earlier post (which I linked to for Williamson’s benefit):
[I]t’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.
Methinks that’s what Kevin Williamson has decided, too, after his “provocative” remarks backfired. I’m guessing we’ll never know what Kevin Williamson thinks should happen to women who have abortions, unless Roe is reversed and he’s consulted by the legislature of Oklahoma.