Who the Law Targets

Posted on April 7, 2016 By

by Rachel MacNair

In recent news [in April of 2016], a candidate known for incoherence and failure to understand the basics on a wide range of policies showed these tendencies yet again. He said women who had abortions (if it were banned again in the U.S.) should be punished for getting them. Many abortion defenders, to fit their stereotypes, pounced on this statement as the “real” thinking of pro-lifers. Other news sources reported honestly that both sides in the abortion debate were upset by the remark (Gwen Ifill cheerfully said it was one of the few times the two sides agreed with each other). The candidate did retract the statement saying only the abortionist would be punished, having discovered this is what pro-lifers wanted him to say (and proceeded to contradict himself again later, as is his custom).

The discussion this event stimulated has led to two questions we need to be clear on:

  1. How can pro-lifers really think abortion is the killing of an innocent child if they don’t want the kind of punishment that ordinarily goes with criminal homicide? Don’t they show they don’t really mean it by saying the mothers shouldn’t be punished?
  2. If the answer is that pro-lifers regard women as also being victims of the abortionist, isn’t that insulting to the dignity of women and the choices they make?

The Moral Case

The fact is that a large portion of pro-lifers are women who’ve had abortions. The rest of us know such women and have given them a sympathetic ear. Large portions of the movement are given to programs of therapy dealing with post-abortion emotions. The evidence for women being traumatized by the abortion, and being surprised to discover so, is widespread.

Sure, there are women who will never show any such signs, and resent the suggestion that they might. There are others that resent it now but will show such signs of trauma later.

Many abortion clinics push women through a quick assembly-line process, make their money, and move on to the next customer. Pro-lifers are the ones spending our volunteer time doing the lengthy and wrenching task of cleaning up the emotional wreckage they leave behind. So of course the idea that the legal case goes against the money-makers would seem obvious to us.

The Practical Legal Case

Unborn children, though equal in value to everyone else, are different in one huge practical way: the only people who know they exist are their mothers and anybody their mothers tell. With the rest of us, if we were killed our absence would be noticed. And unlike those of us with larger bodies, tiny bodies are easily disposed of without ringing alarm bells.

Accordingly, the person who will most want the mother to be accused is the abortionist. If the mother stands accused, then she’s an accomplice. She’ll plead the Fifth and never testify against the abortionist. She’s often the only witness. Hence, no case at all.

Another point about unborn children is that the death rate in miscarriage is still depressingly high. If mothers were punished for abortions, then it would follow that spontaneous abortions (the medical term for miscarriages) could be investigated to see if they were actually induced. This is a horror story. It’s been bad enough that women suffering after a miscarriage have been treated callously (“don’t worry about it, dear, you can always try for another”). The last thing a grieving woman needs is to have the legal system butting in.

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The Consistent-Life Case

Yet abortion, when illegal, has another feature different from the average criminal homicide. Most homicides are done by single individuals, or occasionally by a well-defined small group of co-conspirators, who do their best to hide the fact that they did it, knowing that condemnation is harsh. Abortion shares with executions and war this feature: a large number of participants.

Would we entirely blame the people who directly kill someone in an execution when they wouldn’t have done so but that a judge ordered them to, based on a jury’s decision? Would we entirely blame the judge and jury who are following laws passed by legislators? Entirely blame legislators who are responding to what their constituents want? The responsibility for killing in executions is widespread.

As for war, governments deliberately put people in situations where, as combatants, they’re supposed to kill other combatants. If they’re draftees, how morally responsible are they, and why are they less innocent than non-combatants? But suppose soldiers did eagerly sign up for the task, having been assured it was for noble purposes, only to find out later they’d been lied to? How responsible are the people in government when they have constituents pushing for a war? How responsible are the money-making lobbyists, when the war wouldn’t be available as a money-making opportunity at all unless a large enough group of non-lobbyists said it was? All these people do have moral culpability. But none of them holds it alone.

So in the case of abortion, what about all the people that pressure the mother? If the father of the unborn child beats or threatens to beat her, we can hold him legally accountable. But suppose he only threatens to abandon her, thus leaving her in dire economic straits? We can’t make that illegal, and yet he’s morally culpable in the baby’s death because of what he did. What about the boss who insists? The pastor who advises a wife to do what her husband wants? The parents of a pregnant teenager or woman insist? The baby’s father’s parents? The school counselor who makes arrangements without even asking? The impregnating pedophile who schedules the appointment to cover his crime?

And in executions, war, and abortions, what about all the people who offer the view that violence is a good way of solving problems? They therefore help make violence happen that wouldn’t have otherwise.

Unlike criminal homicide, for which society-wide disapproval is clear, when killing is socially approved (whether legal or not), there are large numbers of participants. Countries where abortion is quite illegal now still have surreptitious ones arranged by someone other than the pregnant woman herself, not regarding her opinion on the matter as relevant.

The moral responsibility for the death of that unborn child is far more widespread than just the child’s mother. The concept of “choice” lays all the responsibility at the foot of the pregnant woman – thus letting everyone else off the hook.

We don’t buy it. Legal or illegal, the responsibility for the deaths of those children falls on many participants. As with war and executions and every other issue of socially-approved deliberate killing, it’s the hearts and consciences of all those participants we need to reach.


For more of our blog posts on abortion and the law, see:

Should Abortions be Illegal?

Why the Hyde Amendment Helps Low-Income Women

What Studies Show: Impact of Abortion Regulations 

My Ideas for Post-Roe Legislation 




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