Speaking of Women's Rights: The Truth About Consequences

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Truth About Consequences

Everyone acknowledges that abortion is a hot-button issue, a critical battleground in the “culture wars”, a subject that causes ordinarily rational people to get exceedingly worked up. Yet amid all the rhetoric about the sanctity of human life and the autonomy of the woman, we spend precious little time taking the question to its logical extension: if abortion is illegal, then what happens?

We know what happens in Mexico: women go to prison. For up to 30 years, in the state of Guanajato. The authorities in that state dispute the claim, saying that while 166 women have been ‘investigated’ for the crime of having an abortion, the outcomes of those investigations have varied. Oh, okay: that’s different. I guess.

What about in the United States? Well, occasionally legislation is introduced to address the question. Sometimes wrath falls on the physicians for providing abortions (Florida), and sometimes it descends on women, as in the bill in Utah that makes it a crime to commit an act that results in the death of an unborn child outside the parameters of legal abortion (which by the way could include punishment for a miscarriage or negligence while pregnant). And of course there is the nun who was excommunicated for permitting an abortion when the woman's life was in danger, though that isn't a question of secular criminal law.

But the question of punishment turns out to be the black hole in the abortion debate. There is plenty of sound-bite posturing about the topic in general, but when it gets right down to it, try asking an anti-choice person what he believes should be the punishment for it, and you’ll get faster tap-dancing than Savion Glover on a good day. If you don’t believe me, check out this clip from an apparently neutral reporter who asked anti-abortion protesters in Illinois their opinion. Not only did most of them not have an opinion, they copped to never really having thought about it. The same goes for some politicians running on a pro-life platform.

It’s a critical question, and kudos go to America, The National Catholic Weekly, which examined the question way back in 2005, in an article that pointed out the difference between the moral position opposing abortion and the political policies that follow from the moral position. If abortion should be illegal altogether, what should be the consequences? If it were illegal except in the case of rape or incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger, how do you distinguish the punishment in those cases from when the exceptions are absent?

We can’t expect intellectual or policy integrity on every issue (perhaps not on any issue, but let’s ignore that for the moment). But I wonder if the conversation could be shifted if we aimed for the heart of this debate. Don’t just tell me you oppose abortion: tell me what you think should happen to me -- or your sister, your neighbor, your teacher or your daughter -- if one of us has one.