If Abortion Were Illegal

A liberal social issues group,, recently created a mini-documentary filmed outside a Libertyville, Ill. abortion clinic. The interviewer approached pro-life demonstrators outside the clinic and asked, “If abortion is illegal, how much time should a woman do in prison for having one?” The resulting film captured bewildered expressions and unsatisfying answers to a question rarely posed. 

For the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH), columnist Anna Quindlen, and the film’s producers, this was the “gotcha” question that revealed a gaping hole in pro-life rhetoric. In the latest issue of Newsweek, Quindlen said the demonstraters in the video try to “worm their way out of hypocrisy,” because they chose not to judge and criminalize women in crisis situations.

Historically, women were not imprisoned for having abortions — the doctors who gave them were. From a moral standpoint, there were two victims — mother and child.  Why should it be any different now? Neither the filmmakers nor Quindlen took notice of the revisionist notion of their approach.

Quindlen argued that blaming doctors is “infantilizing women” as though they are “merely some addled bystander.” A woman does ultimately decide, but that choice is often made under stressful, misinformed circumstances, which seem to make the woman as much a victim as her child. 

Olivia Gans, a spokeswoman for the National Right to Life committee, had an abortion 26 years ago. She speaks frequently with women who’ve had abortions and said that “women come forward afterward…talking about the deliberate manipulation they believe they experienced [from the doctors].” 

Instead of focusing on “decreasing the need for abortions,” as most pro-choice groups claim they advocate, the NIRH has started a campaign (inspired by the documentary) called “How Much Time Should She Do?” hoping to destroy pro-life arguments that fail to answer that question.

But they miss the point entirely. Quindlen muses that not a single person featured in the documentary is “decisive about the crux of a matter they have been approaching with absolute certainty.” She speculates that pro-lifers may not really believe abortion is murder because they won’t say that those who receive abortions should be punished as if it were. In reality, whoever commits the act of murder bears the punishment specified under law. In the case of abortion if the law properly labeled that murder — the individual to be punished would be the physician.

Joseph Dellapenna, a law professor at Villanova University, wrote the book “Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History.”  He told HUMAN EVENTS that many anti-abortion activists have not thought much about [punishment for women who have abortions] because it is not part of their agenda and it doesn’t need to be. “There is a long tradition in the law and in society of focusing on the abortionist as the criminal and of considering the woman as much victim of the abortion as the aborted fetus.”

Dellapenna notes that a legal focus on the abortionist rather than the woman is necessary in these causes because the law does not allow the conviction of someone on the basis of uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.

“Courts even in the nineteenth and twentieth century justified continuing to treat a woman as a victim rather than a participant in the crime on the basis that one cannot consent to a crime against oneself,” he wrote in an email message. “This is akin to allowing a drug user to go free in order to convict a drug dealer."

Dellapana said it is a better likely a better policy for abortion opposers to reject criminal punishments for women who undergo abortion. “This was the position, by the way, of Susan B. Anthony, Tennessee Claflin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and nearly all the other nineteenth century feminists,” he said.

The pro-life purpose is not to judge or punish women in crisis situations — but to preserve life, extend compassion, and provide emotional, spiritual, and physical support. Gans’  group wants to eliminate the deceptive message that abortion is just one more palatable choice — when the emotional consequences and guilt are often lifelong. You would be hard pressed to find a woman who will admit she regrets giving birth.

Quindlen and crew presume that abortion is a legal matter only, completely bypassing the moral factor. For pro-lifers, the moral questions greatly surpass the legal ones.

According to Gans, the majority of women seek abortions due to relational circumstances with the baby’s father, lack of familial support and rationale fears of raising a child alone. “Women feel almost obliged to pursue an abortion…because they don’t believe there is enough societal support,” said Gans, saying as well that pro-choice organizations often give the impression that women make this difficult decisions independent of these outside pressures.

Mary Alice Carr, a media representative for NIRH, told me that “people should be held accountable for what the world looks like afterward” — if abortions become illegal. She’s right but for a different reason. There should be a movement of support to help women who bravely choose to continue their pregnancy in the face of uncertainty. When they choose life, they require resources to help them pursue that avenue responsibly. 

Carr said pro-lifers “owe it to the women to tell them what the outcome will be,” if abortion is no longer an option. Right again. They deserve to know they are not alone and that should be a priority for the pro-life movement to undertake.

“The fact of the matter is that compassion for women before abortion was legal and compassion for them after unborn protections are enforced will drive the law,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, in a National Review Online symposium Wednesday. “The focus of such laws is on protection, not punishment.”

If it comes to outlawing abortion, pregnant women don’t have to wonder “how much time” they will do. The law should approach the action for what it is — a doctor performing an act on two individual patients. If so, there will be no question of who is criminally responsible. If abortion were illegal, the abortionist would know the law and the ramifications of breaking it. Then, they will only be messing with their own personal ethics and implications — not someone else’s. 

“You will find among people [who’ve had abortions]…they will talk abut accepting responsibility,” said Gans. “But that is gravely different from saying the law has a responsibility to make us responsible.”