We recently witnessed another cycle of the news media asking pro-lifers and presidential candidates (not always one and the same) if they believe post-abortive women should face criminal charges. If you’re quiet and listen, you can almost hear the hand-wringing of Republican campaign managers around the nation, fearing their candidate will implode on a controversial abortion question. But they shouldn’t fear it. The punishment question is fully answerable and is an opportunity for the pro-life cause. If pro-lifers are paying attention, we ought to welcome the question, as should any elected official claiming a pro-life platform.
The short answer to the very loaded “abortion punishment” question is simply, “Oh, stop it,” then cue a response like Marjorie Dannenfelser who explained, “We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion.” At the same time, when asked in good faith, it is a question worthy of a thoughtful reply. So become familiar with the thinking on the subject from other pro-life colleagues, including Russell Moore, Jeanne Mancini, and Joe Carter. But even before developing that conversation, you can dispense any fear of the “gotcha” question. Here are a couple ways to do that.
1. Recognize what’s behind the question.
The question itself reveals a significant ceding of ground to the pro-life position. It indicates the pro-life movement is winning other arguments. Whether they know it or not, those who pose the question concede they don’t know how to defend abortion-on-demand as morally good, in and of itself. Otherwise, they would do so. They have skipped any attempt to defend abortion as anything other than the taking of a unique human life. After all, the pro-life movement continues to win that point medically, philosophically, and yes, biblically.
The question presumes a not-yet realized world where abortion-on-demand is once again outlawed. So if we are already debating what the penalties might be for future illegal abortions, pro-life Americans should welcome that conversation. Why is that? Instead of forthrightly defending abortion, the pro-abortion apologists are doing three things. First, they are avoiding the main question at hand (what is the unborn?), which they lose. Second, they are trading in fear, casting pro-lifers as people who want to lock women in jail, which is not true. Third, they are trying to keep Americans thinking that abortion is not something they want to prohibit by law.
The abortion industry is on the defensive, you see. The pro-life movement has proved resilient and public support for pro-life legislative ideas is increasing. Evidence of this is in opinion polling on abortion laws (like bans on late-term abortions) and open admissions of trouble from within the industry. The pro-life movement has successfully convinced many Americans that abortion is at least morally questionable. The logical next step is for Americans to consider abortion immoral enough that we make it unlawful.
The pro-abortion apologists know this. They reason that if they can get Americans to think that being pro-life means punishing women with the law, they can neutralize the pro-life movement. Don’t let them deceive you. The “punishment question” reveals the success of the pro-life movement.
2. Welcome the legitimate policy question.
Pro-lifers know that women who consider abortion are often victims themselves. Post-abortive women certainly are. They have been injured physically, medically, emotionally, and spiritually. These mothers and their aborted babies are among the most vivid and heartbreaking casualties of the sexual revolution. Abortion-on-demand cannot be separated from the context of the sexual revolution which hatched such an evil. This is why the American pro-life movement has staffed, volunteered, and self-funded pregnancy care centers to serve women and men to offer counsel, healing, and often Christ. Legal restrictions are not a quick fix to a culture of death.
Once we explain our dedication to the care and healing of post-abortive women, then yes, let’s talk about what life looks like in a world when abortion-on-demand is outlawed once again. The rule of law facilitates justice and educates us about morality. Let’s readily admit that the abolition of abortion-on-demand necessarily has implications for our legal system, including criminal penalties for abortion “doctors.” This is no different than the abolition of slavery requires criminal penalties for those who buy and sell human beings. We need not shy away from this fact. If you have proclaimed yourself a pro-life candidate without understanding this, know that this is simply the logical outworking of a coherent position.
In the modern era, Americans have outlawed human trafficking. In combatting trafficking we seek to address a host of social factors and provide restoration to victims. Nevertheless, it would be absurd for us to neglect criminal penalties for the perpetrators of those crimes. We rightly do both. The same is true for where the pro-life movement has historically placed emphasis: forgiveness and restoration for women; penalties for those who dismember the bodies of unborn humans.
The moral of the story in all this is the same as any debate about abortion: be prepared to reply to difficult questions, and recognize when you are on the winning side of a debate. To the pro-life community, I echo Russell Moore and say, “Onward!”