Dirty Secrets

Donald Trump’s ‘Punishment’ Talk Exposes Abortion Foes’ True Face

Beware the weasel words of the anti-choice movement.

03.31.16 11:25 PM ET

After Donald Trump said that when abortion is criminalized there must be some punishment for women who get an abortion, anti-abortion activists went into overdrive to distance themselves from his comments.

National Right to Life said it “has long opposed the imposition of penalties on the woman on whom an abortion is attempted or performed.” Other anti-choice organizations, including the Susan B. Anthony List and Priests for Life, joined in. Jeanne Mancini of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund declared flat-out, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion.”

That, of course, is utterly, ridiculously false.

Just a few months ago, Personhood USA, a group that has been pushing for state-level laws granting legal personhood to fertilized eggs at the moment of conception, cheered the attempted murder prosecution of a woman in Tennessee who had tried to give herself an abortion. As Miranda Blue noted at Right Wing Watch in December, “In Alabama, the state supreme court has used ‘chemical endangerment’ laws to lay the legal groundwork for fetal personhood, leading to the prosecutions of nearly 500 women accused of endangering their fetuses.”

One of the co-chairs of Ted Cruz’s “Pro-Lifers for Cruz” group—announced by the Cruz campaign in January— is Troy Newman, who says a woman who has an abortion is essentially a “contract killer.” He has made it clear, in writing, that he thinks a biblical response to abortion means executing providers and treating women who have abortions as “murderers.”

And, in fact, that is how women are often treated, both in the United States and overseas. Laws restricting and criminalizing abortion mean punishment for women. As Tara Culp-Ressler noted at Think Progress, women in countries whose anti-abortion laws are defended by U.S. pro-lifers can end up serving for decades behind bars for having a miscarriage that authorities believe the woman did something to induce.

Multiple U.S. women—with few options to get themselves to one of their state’s dwindling legal clinics—have been arrested for illegal abortions after they bought abortion-inducing medication online. And thanks to the growing number of laws aimed at protecting “fetal rights,” other women have been punished for doing activities that allegedly harmed their pregnancies. Americans have been charged with murder for allegedly seeking to harm their fetuses by attempting suicide, using illicit drugs, or even falling down the stairs.

Cruz himself has been a fervent supporter of the “personhood” movement, except for the times when he is waffling politically. He supports a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, but he actually holds an even more extreme position. He “absolutely” believes a constitutional amendment is not necessary. He says Congress can do an end-run around Roe v. Wade by simply passing a law declaring that a fertilized egg is a person under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That would seemingly make women who have abortions in any state subject to criminal prosecution.

Cruz is smart enough to know that it’s best not to make the consequences of his position clear. Last year at an Iowa Freedom Summit, he twice dodged questions about what the punishment for doctors or women should be when abortion is criminalized as he has pledged it would be if he becomes president.

Winning the presidency and the power to nominate Supreme Court justices is a top priority for anti-choice activists, and that’s why there was such a massive public relations response to Trump’s comments. Their real problem was that his shoot-from-the-hip comments would disrupt their carefully constructed strategy of putting a kinder, gentler, “pro-woman” face on a movement that has a long track record of harassing women seeking abortions.

At an Evangelicals for Life rally before this year’s March for Life in January, Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life and other speakers talked about the need to combat progressives’ “war on women” narrative by shifting the focus of anti-abortion messaging from the unborn baby to branding abortion as anti-woman:

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Yoest celebrated the anti-choice movement’s success at generating a “tidal wave” of restrictions on abortion, explaining in her remarks at the World Congress of Families summit in October that those victories were based on a strategic decision to focus on state legislatures, pass restrictions, and create opportunities for the Supreme Court to chip away at Roe. She called it a “stealth strategy” and an “under-the-radar” way to go on the offensive.

She was one of many speakers there arguing that the movement’s continued success will depend on putting a more loving, compassionate, woman-focused face on the movement, directly challenging pro-choice advocates who ground their legal arguments in women’s dignity. Yoest described abortion as “fundamentally anti-woman” and abortion advocates as “the true misogynists in our society.”

The movement’s mobilization to defend this PR strategy from Trump’s blundering was quite effective; it took just hours for Trump to backpedal. He issued a statement saying that only a doctor who performs an abortion should be punished because a woman who gets an abortion is really a “victim”—mirroring the new rhetorical strategy of the anti-choice movement.

That may be more politically palatable than demanding that women be treated as murderers. But it says that a woman who chooses abortion is always a passive victim rather than a person with her own moral agency who has affirmatively made a decision based on what she believes is best for her health, her life, and her family.

It is precisely women being legally and culturally empowered to make their own decisions about sexuality and family that the anti-choice movement—and every Republican running for the presidency—cannot tolerate.