Abortion: A Restorative Justice Response
by Jim Hewes
This is a response to the question of what states will now do after the Dobbs decision when women procure illegal abortions.
There was a joint letter from more than 70 leading pro-life organizations stating that “criminalizing women who have abortions is not pro-life.” Many pro-life leaders and politicians have publicly stated a similar view, and this is reflected in the state bans that have passed.
Since pro-life people have always held that life within the womb is no different and needs to be treated as life outside the womb, does this mean that if a mother kills a child right after a child is born or a year after birth, she too shouldn’t be held accountable, and her actions should also not be criminalized?
Doesn’t this approach minimalize what abortion does, killing innocent pre-born lives? If a woman doesn’t go to an abortionist, then the killing never takes place. Yet almost no one wants to punish women who hired abortionists, because of the complex and difficult circumstances surrounding women who procure abortions. This includes the belief society has created that abortion is a mere elimination of a clump of cells, a simple outpatient surgery procedure, or taking a few medical pills.
A Healing Approach
I believe there is a way to face this challenging dilemma which comes from my 20 years of ministering to many broken and wounded post-abortive women through Project Rachel (also my ministry with Rachel Vineyard Retreats), as well as my years as a jail chaplain and mediator, where a restorative justice approach was used.
How is the concern of repairing the harm done to the victim (an innocent pre-born child) addressed? This is where “restorative justice” becomes so valuable. The goal is to offer the offender/perpetrator a time of reflection, accepting responsibility, transformation, rehabilitation, reconciliation, restoration, reintegration and reparation; and also to give the community an opportunity to see if their practices or lack of support in any way contributed to the offenders’ actions.
Something could be established with similar principles used in the current practice of “drug/opioid courts” Sentencing takes into account mitigating factors (being a first-time offender, not a threat to the safety of the society, etc.) Specially trained judge-mediators are appointed who determine what extenuating circumstances (pressures, poverty, failed contraceptives, lacking in knowledge of what an abortion actually is because of 50 years of propaganda, etc.) led to the abortion and then what creative “sentence” would be given to the women who procured the abortion. As in “Drug/Opioid Courts,” the “sentence’s” goal would not be to punish the person, but to help these women rebuild their lives. Women wouldn’t lose their dignity after their crime or have to face any type of incarceration.
In this restorative justice approach, a woman might be helped to develop certain life skills and work together at the same place with other women in similar situations, as she attempts to find healing, repair injuries, rebuild and restore her life. Restorative justice is primarily not about retribution or punishment but conveys that we as a society haven’t given up on someone.
These women would serve what is called “transformative incarceration,” which is a “character based” place, having rehabilitative, restorative and ministry based programs available; in their “sentence” they would be offered both individual counseling (such as Cognitive Behavior Techniques) and group counseling (modeled after the Rachel Vineyard Retreats), especially if is she was suffering from PTSD, as many post-abortive women do.
Since 75% of those who have abortions are either poor or low-income women (the poorest 13% have over 50% of the abortions), these key systemic factors must be addressed by society as a whole. Whatever led her to an abortion, resources would be made available to her, such as working on a degree, work as a tutor to help other women. She could be taught good decision-making processes; job assistance, training and placement; assistance finding affordable housing; availability of mental health personnel; educational programs; help with transportation; training in certain life skills; help with healing and restoring broken relationships; ongoing mentoring; medical care; spiritual support; help with reintegrating into the community. All of this could help keep this tragic action from being repeated in the future.
Restorative justice doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the wrong or cancel the affect this act has perpetuated. It offers an alternative way to make the best out of a tragedy. One can detest the deed or crime but not the person who has committed it.
Crime or wrongdoing depersonalizes both the victim and (surprisingly) also the perpetrator. Restorative justice humanizes both the offender and the victim (the pre-born), which is desperately needed in our culture of violence and death.
The number one concern of victims in the restorative justice approach is that what happened to them won’t happen to anyone else. Thus, a primary goal would be to lower the recidivism rate of 45% of repeat abortions.
An important element of this approach would be to offer actual working models such as the peacemaking circles, healing circles, and conferencing circles along the lines of the Longmont Community Justice Partnership, the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, the Welcome Home Reentry Program of Maryland, or the Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice process.
Other models would use the principles and experiences of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). There’s a recognition that a human life has been taken; otherwise, it would convey that the pre-born’s life is not worth as much as a born child’s life.
There’s also the example Rwanda . The government reinstated a traditional system of justice called “Gacaca” (which means “on the grass”), a community court located near a village/ Those who had participated in the terrible violence were brought to communities to face their victims and their victims’ families. If those overseeing the “gacaca” didn’t believe what the killer stated or didn’t think the person’s apology was sincere, they sent them back to prison. If those who had been in prison, who were also considered neighbors, convinced the people they were sincere, they let them go back home. Those who organized the genocide (abortionists in this analogy) still went to court.
No one wants to be known or defined by the worst action of their lives. Any of us could be one bad action away from incarceration. All of us have at some point in our life “aborted” God’s will for us.
All of these model programs would be tailored to help each person and provide resources so they may truly live in society, to be given a second chance to become the best version of themselves.
Not Wanting Abortions at All
If this new ideal were to be implemented, the challenge would be for society to have all possible resources made available to pregnant women, so they may not even consider an abortion in the first place. We need to treat women (including those who have had an abortion) the way we want them to treat any possible future pre-born children: with reverence, compassion and support. We as a society have to be as generous and committed to these women, as we are asking women in unintended or crisis pregnancies to be.
Also, there would be a need to address the fathers of aborted children. A large portion of abortions wouldn’t happen if the father had wanted the child. So, the mother often first feels unwanted by the significant people around her, and sadly, passes this along to her pre-born child (“Pain that is not transformed is transmitted”). Society would need to hold men accountable as well for pressuring women, paying for illegal abortions, transporting women for abortions or abandoning them in one of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.
Dr Bernard Nathanson, Dr. Anthony Levantino, Dr. Steven Hammond, Dr. John Bruchalski, Dr. Haywood Robinson, Dr. McArthur Hill, Dr. David Brewer, Dr Beverly McMillan, Dr Kathi Aultman, Dr. Noreen Johnson, Dr. Patti Geibink, Dr. Joseph Randal, and Dr Kathi Aultman have all done many abortions but later changed. Not only do they no longer do abortions but they now speak out strongly against abortion from their first-hand experience. So other abortionists too may be eligible for a restorative justice approach, with models like the organization “And Then There Were None.”
It may take a transitional period, when abortion is made illegal in certain states. This approach may not be the final outcome, but it could be an important direction to find a creative and restorative way to face this very challenging situation created by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
Our member group, Rehumanize International, has delved into this topic at length in a white paper, Justice After Roe: Healing the Communal Trauma of Abortion through a Restorative Justice System