I hate the feeling that this blog has become as much a slave to the Trump-centric news cycle as everywhere else, but this seems to be the case. It's a game that Trump has designed in such a way that he cannot lose-- even the complaining about the attention Trump receives is a kind of attention. But his comments about abortion that made headlines last week have once again posed some questions about our political culture that I find it difficult to get off my mind.
First, it must be said that there are times when Trump's appalling remarks plainly obtain an order of magnitude of toxicity beyond what other people are saying. But there are also times when the media seems to draw this line in ways I find hard to predict. It's clear enough why a "total ban" on Muslim immigration is a more extreme stance than halting the refugee program, say, but it can well be said that both play to the same base elements of human nature. And I'll never understand why Marco Rubio can entertain a question about "closing mosques" in a GOP debate that is broadcast nationwide and no one seems to blink. With such precedents as these, it's hard to escape the feeling at times that Trump is penalized less for his outrageous views than for the failure of political deftness with which he expresses them.
I feel that something similar may be behind the response to Trump's recent comments about "punishing" women who receive abortions. I share many of the feelings that have been expressed on the left about these remarks, but what I am not clear on is how precisely Trump's views on this matter-- which he later withdrew-- differ from the views of, say, Paul Ryan, or Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, or any of the other politicians who state a commitment to criminalizing abortion services. I am open to the possibility that I simply misunderstand the pro-life position. In that case I pose this genuinely as a question: If abortion becomes illegal in the United States, won't women who continue to receive abortion services be subjected to some form of penalty? Or is there an alternative stance that I am not aware of?
The pro-life response to this question may be that the law should only be used to punish doctors who perform abortion services, and not the women who receive them -- I have heard this expressed before. But if so, are we to understand that under a pro-life legal regime, there would be no penalty for a woman who performs an abortion on herself? Or who asks a friend who is not a doctor to perform one?
In a world in which our abortion laws are written by Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio, would abortions conducted safely in medical settings be illegal, but not abortions conducted by one's own hand-- by a deliberate fall, by self-harm, by coat-hanger, by what the poet Lucy Smith once chillingly called, in Hughes and Bontemps's anthology of African American verse, "a reluctant appointment with an unsterile knife"? Are we to arrive then at the strange inversion, that abortion should be illegal only when it is conducted by a licensed medical professional? Or should it be illegal whenever anyone apart from the mother performs one-- but legal when she does?
I don't mean these questions to be rhetorical or snide. I also don't mean for the graphic images in the last paragraph to serve as closing or silencing arguments in themselves. I'm well aware that the other side has graphic descriptions of its own that it could -- and does -- employ. I just genuinely want to know what an ideal pro-life legal regime would look like to its advocates.
But if I am correct in my understanding above, then I would add the following. It is a personal reaction that I do not expect people committed to the pro-life position to share: namely, that if we did live in a world in which the "reluctant appointment with an unsterile knife" was legal, so long as it was one's own hand that wielded the knife, and medical abortion was illegal, I feel I would regard it as an act of courage and conscience on the part of doctors who chose to violate that law, bringing opprobrium and possible prosecution upon themselves, by performing safe medical abortions for women who might be at risk of performing dangerous operations on themselves otherwise.
And if the above description is not correct -- if, rather, as I suspect may be the case -- many pro-life advocates in fact do think that abortions should be illegal, even when performed by a mother's own hand, then I would return to my original question -- How is this different from what Trump said in the interview?
Perhaps Trump's comments, characteristically tone-deaf as they were, serve as a reminder of something important that many of us prefer to forget -- namely, that what we are talking about when we discuss most social issues or morals legislation (drug use, sex work, etc.) is not whether such things should take place. Our law has no ability to decide it one way or the other. We are human beings, equipped with moral freedom, and the law cannot ultimately control whether we take drugs, hire or perform sex work, etc. All the law can decide is what incremental degree of suffering, pain, financial loss, physical isolation from society, etc. we are willing to inflict on people for the purpose of dissuading them and others from doing these things in future. When we talk about making abortion "illegal," therefore, that is what we are talking about doing to at least someone -- even if we think these penalties should only be applied to doctors.
Of course, pro-life advocates may conclude that abortion is a sufficient social evil that such coercive and punitive measures are justified in extirpating it. I would suggest that there is yet another possible view, however. It is not one I hold, but I see in it no inconsistency. Someone might view abortion as an extremely grave moral wrong; they might even regard it as the moral equivalent of infanticide. And even so, they might still conclude -- perhaps out of sympathy for the extreme desperation and vulnerability that often leads women to seek an abortion -- or perhaps out of sympathy for the merciful intentions that might persuade a doctor to perform an abortion on someone who asked for one (and who might, again, perform an unsafe and possibly fatal operation on herself if a doctor did not help her), that the state should never apply its instruments of coercion to such as these. In which case, abortion should-- even for those who regard it as a profound moral evil -- be legal. They might decide, with Bertolt Brecht, in "The Infanticide of Marie Farrar" (Bremer Trans.- emphasis added):
"You who bear your sons in laundered linen sheets
And call your pregnancies a 'blessed' state
Should never damn the outcast and the weak:
Her sin was heavy but her suffering great."