Other Voices

We can be distressed by abortion but still against prosecuting young women

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves a campaign stop Wednesday in Wisconsin.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves a campaign stop Wednesday in Wisconsin. AP

Just when you thought Donald Trump couldn’t say anything more shocking, he suggested that women who get abortions should be punished.

On MSNBC, he said abortion must be banned and then “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who manage to get abortions.

He declined to say what the punishment should be, dodging a question about whether it should be “10 years” in prison or something milder.

Trump doesn’t seem to have thought deeply about the issue, and he departed from the mainstream anti-abortion position of targeting not women but abortion providers.

After the TV interview was over and the backlash had begun, Trump tried to back off his comment, saying in a statement, “The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

One lesson is that Trump is an uninformed opportunist, but the episode does highlight two basic problems for the anti-abortion movement.

First, as long as the focus is on the fetus or on the claim of “protecting women,” many in the public are sympathetic to the anti-abortion view. The moment the focus shifts to criminalizing women, sympathy shifts.

Anti-abortion activists have generally taken a savvy approach over the years by concentrating on extreme situations — such as late-term so-called partial-birth abortions — and on legislating obstacles that in practice reduce access.

Of the 1,074 state restrictions on abortion put in place after Roe v. Wade in 1973, more than one-quarter were enacted since 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Trump has now turned the attention back from the fetus to the woman. And remember that three in 10 American women get an abortion at some point in their lives.

Second, the data suggest that one of the most effective ways to reduce the number of abortions would be to increase the availability of publicly funded family planning.

In 2013, publicly funded family planning prevented 2 million unintended pregnancies, including almost 700,000 abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Yet Republicans try to defund Title X, the traditional family planning program in the United States. After inflation, its funding level is less than one-third what it was in 1980.

In truth, Trump’s stance would matter only if a more conservative Supreme Court revisited Roe v. Wade and some states were allowed to ban abortion altogether.

Moreover, medical abortion, achieved by taking two kinds of pills, is gaining ground on surgical abortion and is much more difficult to stop.

In particular, one of the pills, misoprostol, is very cheap, has other uses and is at least 80 percent effective on its own in inducing an abortion early in pregnancy.

The upshot is that early abortions will be increasingly difficult to prevent.

Trump’s comments about punishing women are worth pondering because they reflect the logical conclusion of equating a fetus with any other human being.

This penalizing approach has been tried before and failed, including a dozen years ago in Portugal. Police staked out women’s health clinics, looking to arrest women who appeared likely to have just had abortions based on being pale or seeming upset.

Some 48 women and a 16-year-old girl were prosecuted.

The women were humiliated at trial, their most intimate gynecological history revealed to the public. And the public was revolted.

The women were all acquitted, and the public turned decisively in favor of abortion rights, by a majority of 79 to 14 percent.

The episode left many Portuguese both anti-abortion and pro-choice.

They were distressed by abortion, especially late in pregnancies, but they were aghast at the idea of prosecuting young women for making wrenching personal choices.

I think many Americans feel the same way.

Nicholas Kristof is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

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