The Atlantic recently hired, and then promptly fired, conservative columnist Kevin Williamson due to outrage over his position that abortion should not only be illegal, but a capital offense.
Having been a pro-life activist for over a decade now, I can state authoritatively that Williamson’s view is fringe. After all, the pro-life movement is driven in significant part by post-abortive women who learned the hard way that abortion is not “empowering” and want to help others avoid the same mistakes.
That being the case, a number of commentators have responded to the Williamson fiasco with accusations that pro-lifers who disagree with Williamson about the penalty for abortion are hypocrites. If we really believe abortion kills innocent human beings, shouldn’t we want abortion to be treated like any other homicide, with the death penalty on the table?
No, for at least three reasons. (If you, like me and many others in the pro-life movement, oppose the death penalty in general, that gives you a fourth reason. However, Secular Pro-Life welcomes people with differing views on capital punishment.)
1. Abortion coercion is common, and poorly understood. Hard numbers are unfortunately difficult to come by. A much-cited report by pro-life researchers found that 64% of abortions involve outside pressure, ranging from violence or the threat of violence to blackmail, illegal workplace discrimination, kicking women out of the house, and other coercive tactics. Researchers affiliated with the abortion industry have little incentive to devote resources to the question, but have nevertheless observed and reported the phenomenon in connection with studies of intimate partner violence.
A woman who has experienced a coerced abortion is a victim, not a perpetrator. She certainly isn’t deserving of execution!
While it’s true that criminal defendants can assert duress as a defense, that is an uncommon scenario—and many states have disallowed duress as a defense in homicide cases. I can think of no other crime in which duress may occur more than half the time. Our system of criminal justice is simply not equipped to handle that.
(A common pro-choice retort is that pro-life concerns about coerced abortion amount to “infantilizing women.” If that’s you, I humbly suggest, on behalf of all my strong and intelligent friends who’ve experienced domestic abuse, that you can go embrace a cactus.)
2. Intent is a key element of homicide, and the abortion industry has heavily invested in propaganda to make people believe abortion is harmless. Imagine if eating meat was not only criminalized overnight, but made a capital crime! Even strong animal rights supporters (of which there are many in the pro-life movement) would oppose that as being wildly unfair. Likewise, bringing abortion within homicide law would not do justice. Despite our best efforts, many women still enter the abortion facility believing that abortion destroys mere “tissue.” Abortionists are often deceptive, and 21 states don’t even have informed consent laws.
Again, this is not about infantilizing women. Everyone, no matter their gender, is entitled to trust the guidance of their doctors—and should not be subject to criminal prosecution when they follow the bad advice of an unscrupulous doctor.
3. Resources are better spent focusing on abortionists. For the same reason that we should prosecute pimps rather than prostitutes, and drug kingpins rather than low-level dealers and addicts, law enforcement efforts to end the abortion epidemic should focus on suppliers. An abortion customer ends one life; an abortion vendor ends thousands, and does so with the full knowledge that abortion is the killing of a living human being.
For all of these reasons and others, women were not jailed for abortion (let alone sentenced to death!) in the years before Roe v. Wade. After Roe is reversed and the right to life is restored, I am confident that Mr. Williamson’s ideas will still have no traction.