In an opinion piece on Thursday in the Los Angeles Times, op-ed writer Michael McGough wrote that Donald Trump exposed a pro-life contradiction when he stated that, if abortion were illegal, women who have them would have to be punished.
McGough’s argument went like this: pro-lifers think abortion is murder, so how can they not agree to punish a woman who either commits a murder or who is an accessory to a murder?
There are two major problems with McGough’s line of reasoning.
First, he ignores the real contradiction that emerged in this episode, which is that pro-choice people should not have been upset with Trump.
Second, he gets the crime right, but he gets the criminal (and thus the punishment) wrong.
Let’s start with the first point. As we wrote on this blog last week, Trump’s gaffe actually exposed a huge pro-choice contradiction. It goes like this: pro-choice people believe that abortion is one of the primary ways in which women exercise their autonomy, thus they are free agents when it comes to making a choice to have an abortion. Therefore, if abortion was illegal, these free agents would have to be punished. But pro-choicers condemned Trump for suggesting this. They shouldn’t have. He had actually upheld one of their core beliefs about the autonomy and agency of women when choosing abortion.
If McGough was looking for contradictions, he should have found that one.
But, more importantly, McGough has made a weak argument for why pro-lifers should agree to punish women for their abortions. While it is true that many pro-lifers equate abortion with murder, the law treats murder (and thus would-be murderers) differently depending on the circumstances.
First, you have to identify the murderer correctly. McGough assumes that the woman would be the murderer. The pro-life position is that the abortionist is the would-be murderer in a world where abortion is illegal. This argument really boils down to agency, as we stated in that other blog post. Not everyone who kills someone or is an “accessory” to killing someone is found guilty, under the law, of murder. Because pro-life people believe that women are coerced, manipulated, or simply choose abortion under duress, they do not believe women are subject to punishment.
McGough claims that this is a “paternalistic” viewpoint. It is not paternalistic – it is true. McGough assumes that most abortion doctors are men; therefore, in the pro-life view, women are their “pawns.” That is not what pro-lifers believe. Moreover, it is female-led organizations like Planned Parenthood (the leading provider of abortions in the country) and NARAL that push the pro-choice agenda and take advantage of women during a challenging, even desperate, time in their lives when they are trying to figure out how to deal with a difficult pregnancy decision.
McGough unnecessarily made this a women-versus-men thing -- when it didn’t need to be -- just to strengthen his argument. But it really doesn’t work.
Second, you have to correctly identify the motives and circumstances behind the actions of the would-be perpetrator. And again, the argument is really about agency. Under the law, someone without agency cannot be considered a murderer or an accessory to murder. Only the abortionist would be considered a murderer in this particular scenario, even under these specific conditions – that a) abortion is illegal, and b) abortion is murder. In fact, this is exactly how our country handled illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade. Women were not punished. Abortionists were.
Certainly, McGough’s article was an opinion piece, and he is entitled to his opinion. But the above analysis would have been a more thorough take on the reactions to Trump’s remarks.