Celebrated writer Anna Quindlen recently fell into a common abortion trap in a Newsweek column. Addressing pro-lifers, she asked: “How much jail time?” — for women who seek abortion in a United States after Roe v. Wade has been overturned.
She isn’t the first and won’t be the last person to ask the question. It’s a trap even Republicans fall into. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who thinks abortion should be legal, knows enough to stress to conservatives that he wants judges who stick to the Constitution — yet he still hasn’t stopped talking about not wanting women in jail. He told CNN in April, for example: “It is your choice, an individual right. You get to make that choice, and I don’t think society should be putting you in jail.”
A quick memo to Republican politicians trying to convince primary voters they are pro-life: Don’t earnestly insist you don’t want to throw women in jail. Because guess what? I’m pro-life and I don’t want to either. The mainstream pro-life movement doesn’t. We’re compassionate too.
Quindlen misunderstands what most abortion opponents seek. We’re not looking to further victimize women. They already are victimized, by abortion — frequently pressured into it, frequently not knowing there’s help out there for them if they want to keep the baby, frequently suffering in silence for years after the abortion. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the compassionate approach pro-lifers have toward women who find themselves seeking abortion than the “Women Deserve Better” message of Feminists for Life.
Quindlen’s question plays into the-sky-will-fall-and-backalleys-and-coathangers-will-be-the-rule-of-the-land image of a United States the day after the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Headlines will trumpet a new world of oppression for American women, being carted off to jail in their most desperate moments. In truth, the Court would have put the abortion decision in the hands of the people, where it should have been all along. And federalism will reign, as state after state would decide for itself what to do.
Fred Thompson, who has also said that he doesn’t want to make criminals of women, caused a little controversy earlier this year by not being clear how he would vote if his home state were to face that decision: How much abortion should be legal? Should there be an outright ban? But what actually would happen, in Tennessee and elsewhere? Wouldn’t — couldn’t — women be hit with severe sentences for trying to get an abortion? After all, if you believe abortion is murder, isn’t it in the best interest of society to punish a mother who would do such a thing?
In pre-Roe New York State, as it happens, women who procured abortions were considered, according to the letter of the law, criminals (this was not the case in every state). But in practice — in the interest of shutting down doctors who perform abortions — women would customarily get immunity from any criminal prosecution if they would testify against the abortionists.
History, in other words, suggests that when tough anti-abortion laws exist, desperate women aren’t rushed to the slammer. If you don’t trust wackjob pro-lifers like me, who seek to protect the most vulnerable of human life, look at the historical record. Abortion was illegal in the United States prior to the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling — and women weren’t being rushed to jail for seeking abortions. Women weren’t prosecuted, because the law was never after them to begin with. According to Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, a 2006 book by Joseph W. Dellapenna and other historians, law enforcement aimed at the “do no harm” community — the doctors who performed abortions. And even then, “enforcement in the United States focused on the revocation of medical licenses” in the 1930s, with an uptick in prosecutions in the 1940s and 1950s.
As the public-opinion tide turns toward restrictions on abortion, abortion supporters hope that they can scare Americans into opposing us crazy pro-lifers. The truth is, though, we’re not all crazy. We know women who have had abortions. We know what happens to a woman, to a couple, and to the child. We don’t want that to happen — to any of them. The “Women Deserve Better” message is dangerous in that respect, for legal-abortion supporters. So there’s the “jail” scare tactic. But just go to websites like feministsforlife.org and silentnomoreawareness.org, and you’ll find out that the mainstream pro-life movement doesn’t hate women. Some of us even are women, and care deeply about what happens to our sisters. Call it a new feminism.
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