During a recent town hall event with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump showed that he has never given much serious thought to the complicated issue of abortion.
But in answering Matthews’ question about whether women who undergo abortions should be punished if the procedure were outlawed, he was like the naive know-nothing who accidentally speaks the truth.
In the March 30 interview, Trump repeatedly described himself as “pro-life with exceptions” in the cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is endangered. He has been allowed to skate by with that self-description without much probing during this campaign.
But Matthews pressed Trump several times on the issue of punishment for women, and the candidate finally caved, saying, “The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment, yeah.”
That concession predictably brought howls from all sides, and Trump and his campaign team quickly amended his position, saying that if abortion were to become illegal, “the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the women.” The woman, Trump said in the written statement “is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”
But the attempted walk-back didn’t have the desired effect. Abortion rights advocates said Trump had revealed his true feelings on abortion. They also noted that Trump, as a presidential candidate, seemed strangely out of touch and uninformed on this important issue.
Pro-life groups were nearly as angry, insisting that they have never sought to punish women. Like Trump, they say they consider women who get abortions to be victims. Nearly every anti-abortion group in the country disavowed Trump’s initial response.
But their outrage was more than a little disingenuous. The real reason they are upset with Trump – or should be – is that he openly admitted the inevitable outcome of turning back the clock to the era of illegal abortions.
Trump blundered into speaking the truth.
While abortion remains legal, anti-abortion forces are doing their best to limit women’s access to the procedure and place new restrictions on abortion services.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, another GOP presidential contender, was among the first to upbraid Trump for his remarks, saying, “Of course women shouldn’t be punished.” But since he took office, half the abortion clinics in his state have closed or stopped performing abortions.
Texas lost half its clinics in two years. Only one remains open in Mississippi, and two in Louisiana. Nearly 300 new state restrictions on abortion services have been enacted in the past four years.
The war on abortion might be a slow march, but it continues unabated.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 38 states have fetal homicide laws. At least 17 people have been arrested or convicted for self-induced abortions in the United States. One, a Florida teen who could not afford an abortion, shot herself in the stomach and was charged with third-degree murder.
But if abortion is outlawed, women would have to resort to self-induced or back-alley abortions if they wanted to end their pregnancies, risking death or self-injury, just as they did before Roe v. Wade. At the very least, they would be forced to publicly testify against doctors or others who performed their illegal abortions, which, in itself, would be a form of punishment.
If abortion is murder, as its opponents continually claim, how could society ethically allow women to escape punishment for getting an abortion? If embryos are given “personhood,” as pro-life groups advocate, it seems logical that we would have to go to great lengths to protect embryos – including punishing women who intentionally endanger them.
Abortion opponents have been able to get by with hazy statements about not victimizing women. But Trump unintentionally outlined the unavoidable consequences of once again making abortions illegal.
He later regretted it, but for a brief moment, he offered a bit of enlightenment on this thorny issue.
James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.