life after roe

Do Republicans Really Want to Punish Women for Having Abortions?

Purvi Patel is taken into custody after being sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a dependent in March 2015 at the St. Joseph County Courthouse in South Bend, Indiana. Photo: Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK

Among the many offensive things Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano has said that have come to light recently, one of the more inflammatory involves an abortion ban he introduced in the state legislature in 2019, as the New York Times reports:

As a state senator in October 2019, he co-sponsored a bill to ban abortion after the detection of electrical cardiac activity in the fetus, usually around six weeks.

On the radio show Smart Talk, the host, Scott LaMar, asked Mr. Mastriano if a woman would be charged with murder if she were 10 weeks pregnant and knowingly had what would be an illegal abortion under the bill. Mr. Mastriano answered, “Is that a human being? Is that a little boy or girl? If it is, it deserves equal protection under the law.”

“So you’re saying yes?” the host asked.

“Yes, I am,” Mr. Mastriano responded.

Taking this position publicly is a big no-no in American anti-abortion politics. The best evidence of that occurred in March 2016, when Donald Trump, a newcomer to the anti-abortion movement who would, as president, become its ultimate hero, was roundly chastised by right-to-life activists for suggesting in a forum that there needed to be “some form of punishment” for women who obtained illegal abortions.” His rival Ted Cruz spanked him right away for the gaffe, noted The Hill:

“Once again Donald Trump has demonstrated that he hasn’t seriously thought through the issues, and he’ll say anything just to get attention,” Mr. Cruz said in a statement

“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,” he added.

Properly chastised, Trump reversed his position, making it clear that in the hypothetical case of an enforceable ban on abortion, “the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”

Now, thanks to Trump and his Supreme Court nominees, punishments associated with abortion bans are not hypothetical at all. So while there is a raging debate among Republicans about how quickly and thoroughly they should pursue abortion bans at the state or federal level — a debate that has gotten quieter but more urgent as the power of the backlash to the Dobbs decision has become apparent — it’s certainly no time for talk about throwing women into prison for insisting on their reproductive rights. Indeed, the anti-abortion party line is to show great sympathy for the poor dears who must be guided and supported as their government makes them carry all pregnancies to term. Those promoting a (failed) ballot initiative in Kansas to ensure no court could claim a state constitutional right to an abortion branded their proposed amendment “Value Them Both” with nice images of a woman and a baby together. So the mythology of a warm and fuzzy, women-friendly forced-birth regime lives on.

But sometimes referring to abortion as “murder” while calling the person who chooses to have an abortion blameless strikes hammerheaded men like Mastriano and Trump as nonsensical. And you have to wonder how many of their comrades in arms privately agree with the logic of going after the primary threat to fetal life, which is the freedom of women to seek abortions without fear of criminal sanction. As the anti-abortion movement drifts into the ideology of “fetal personhood,” it seems increasingly likely a more aggressive defense of all these helpless “persons” against the homicidal women who refuse to be their willing vessels will become acceptable.

Prosecuting and jailing women for having illegal abortions is an option in many countries with strong anti-abortion laws. A survey by the New York Times found that women can be imprisoned for undergoing an illegal abortion in Nicaragua, India, Egypt, and Turkey, and the Center for Reproductive Rights notes that women have been prosecuted for having abortions under certain circumstances in El Salvador, Iraq, Malawi, and Nepal. And while most state penal codes in the United States in the pre-Roe era focused on criminal sanctions for abortion providers rather than the women whose pregnancies were terminated, it’s not as if the legal system was sympathetic, as Slate recently observed:

By the 1940s and 1950s … police were shutting down providers even if they were safe. The law treated aborting women as “victims” and used them for evidence. Being captured, examined, interrogated, occasionally jailed, and forced to testify in court, however, punished women for seeking abortions even if they were never prosecuted or convicted of a crime.

So whether or not the United States is in danger of becoming a nonfictional version of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in which women are beaten, jailed, or even killed for refusing to accept their duty to bear every child possible, there’s only so much sympathy women can expect from those who deny them reproductive rights, who view abortion as “murder,” who call people who have abortions “baby killers,” and who regard legalized abortion as an “American Holocaust.” At best, women choosing abortion are treated by the enemies of choice as mindless dupes, if not criminal accomplices whose punishment is presently inconvenient.

More on Life After Roe

See All
Do Republicans Want to Punish Women for Having Abortions?