by Rod D. Martin
April 3, 2016

As everyone now knows, Donald Trump told Chris Matthews this week that women should be punished for abortion. (He walked this back, as he is prone to doing, almost immediately.)

Of course, this raises the question: why don’t pro-lifers support punishing women who have abortions? As Trump pointed out, it seems logical that some punishment would be necessary if a crime — especially murder — is committed. And indeed, I have had several correspondents write to say that the very definition of a crime is that someone gets punished.

But of course, that is not the definition of a crime. And even if it were, it ignores that pro-lifers absolutely do support punishing someone: the abortion providers and their accomplices.

There are two main reasons the pro-life movement has always opposed punishing women, one negative, one highly positive.

The first is very simple. If we begin to punish the women — which we never did prior to 1973, so this would be an entirely new thing in American law — we will quickly find ourselves investigating, indicting, and placing on trial every woman who has a miscarriage, every time she miscarries. At the very least, the police will have to be involved, and every time: there will be a dead person, after all, with only the mother’s word as to whether or not that death was deliberate.

I have a close friend who has been trying to get pregnant for the past five years. She has miscarried three times that I personally know of. Under this system, she would have been required to report each of those miscarriages to the police.

Even if nothing further had come of it, the thought is simply horrifying. And such a perverse system would be the certain doom of the pro-life project.

Some will cry injustice at this, but the Hippocratic Oath says first do no harm, and likewise we should avoid “cures” that are worse than the disease. As just one example, it is for this same reason — perverse unintended consequences — that most people long ago abandoned the position that rapists should be executed. As a matter of justice, of course a rapist should be punished very severely (and I have personally in the past called for their execution).

But in practice, when there is a meaningful chance of a death sentence for rape, rapists kill their victims, who are usually the only witnesses to their crime. Since the worst thing that can happen to the criminal will happen either way, a high percentage of them opt for the path that minimizes that risk.

We accept a lower level of punishment because we care more about protecting the victim than about justice for her attacker.

Similarly, our prosecutors are given broad discretion to make plea agreements with some criminals in exchange for information needed to convict other, greater offenders. We release mafia henchmen and drug dealers so we can convict their bosses. Of course we should go after the abortionists, if any are left after we de-license and prohibit their wretched trade. But showing mercy and providing help to mothers, even when they’re guilty, will enable the suppression of the greater evil.

We care more about saving babies than about perfect justice in this world. It is far, far better for babies who might have been aborted to live long, productive lives than to do things which encourage their murder and “get” all of the offenders. As in business and in most things, forward-looking is better.

Which brings us to our second reason. With abortion, the greatest ally in the fight to re-teach a wayward culture the sanctity of life is mothers. Focusing on mercy to babies is thus far more valuable than strict justice, which God will see to anyway, either on the Cross or at the final judgment.

If we make it impossible for abortionists to do their evil business, very few mothers will have opportunity to commit this crime anyway. But showing mercy — not just judicially but in practical help to those in need, including encouraging and facilitating adoption where appropriate — will go a long way toward creating the culture of kindness and of life we desire.

By contrast, complicating the matter by demanding strict justice for the mothers lets the anti-life side caricature us as anti-woman when the exact opposite is true: we are for women in the womb, and for their mothers, who need our help and compassion, however tragic their acts may be.

Today, 75% of Americans would ban all abortions after the first 12 weeks, and that includes 67% of self-identified pro-choicers (I’m not sure how it’s a valid “choice” to kill another human being, but I digress). That’s pretty extraordinary considering that a similar number even of Southern Baptists supported “a woman’s right to choose” in 1973.

We want to do everything we can to encourage this trend: societal consensus for the protection of life is far more valuable than any law, and it will produce the laws we seek. For 1,700 years, there was a consensus in Christendom that the lives of those weakest among us — the unborn, the infant, the elderly and infirm — must be protected. We did not lose that on the day Roe was decided. We lost it in the 50 years preceding, because the church failed to stand firm on the sanctity of life and the Imago Dei. It is that consensus above all else which we must recover and re-teach.

We do not need and should not want to punish women. We need to help them in their time of vulnerability, particularly given the overwhelming prevalence of coercion and deception employed against so many of them in this matter, and we need to teach them and help them not to kill their babies. God will certainly and sovereignly judge the living and the dead. But we have to stop this holocaust, and I am all too happy to make compassion and mercy our focus and means to achieve that.

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UPDATE: A friend on Facebook asked me to condense this to just one sentence. I laughed, but said this: (1) A woman who feels the need to kill her child is in a crisis and needs help, not punishment; (2) making it difficult to obtain assistance for the killing of children — and punishing those who actually provide such “services,” as well as the men who frequently coerce women into abortions in the first place — is enough to ensure there are few if any such killings in the first place; and (3) focusing on mercy for the children will help restore the historical consensus among women and in the culture broadly that life is the first and foremost right, and that innocent life should be protected and cherished, not discarded for the convenience of others.