This weekend, Kevin Williamson finally offered his side of the story in his predictable firing by the Atlantic in the Wall Street Journal. In his piece, he laid bare what the episode was all about: abortion. As he is wont to do, Williamson wrote clearly and directly:
Let’s not equivocate: Abortion isn’t littering or securities fraud or driving 57 in a 55-mph zone. If it isn’t homicide, then it’s no more morally significant than getting a tooth pulled. If it isn’t homicide, then there’s no real argument for prohibiting it. If it is homicide, then we need to discuss more seriously what should be done to put an end to it. For all the chatter today about diversity of viewpoint and the need for open discourse, there aren’t very many people on the pro-choice side, in my experience, who are ready to talk candidly about the reality of abortion.
I agree wholeheartedly with Williamson here. To me, the most pathetic part of this sorry affair is that token “conservatives” shared a disgust of Williamson’s comment about punishing women who get abortions.
One almost can’t tell the difference between some pro-life conservatives and most pro-choice progressives. Treating abortion as the unjust killing of a human being that it is (sometimes known as homicide or murder) is too much for these “champions of the unborn.” Unsurprisingly, their arguments are lacking a grounding in serious political thought as well as in a general sense of the actual attitudes of most people.
Chief among these “anti-Trump appeasers” is Ross Douthat, the house conservative of the New York Times. He wrote an entire column titled “Among the Abortion Extremists” meant to frame Williamson’s views as abnormal and outside the mainstream of opinion on the Right. Ostensibly, Douthat wrote the column to put some distance between the more socially acceptable pro-life movement, which is sophisticated (we’re assured), and the cruder view Williamson so inartfully expressed that abortion is murder and that considering punishment for those who participate in it is not beyond the pale.
Douthat tries to establish a sort of moral equivalence between what he calls extremists on the Left who are open about murdering babies for personal convenience and those extremists on the Right who think murdering babies for personal convenience should be treated like murder. As he says, people on the Left who have built, “a grotesque legal regime in which the most vulnerable human beings can be vacuumed out or dismembered, killed for reasons of eugenics or convenience or any reason at all” are the same as Williamson, who “carefully defended the idea of someday prosecuting women who obtain abortions the way we prosecute other forms of homicide.” He goes on to explain that “today’s pro-life movement likewise generally rejects the idea of prosecuting women.”
Punishment Beyond the Pale?
I may not be as eloquent or as famous as Ross Douthat, but I think this is hogwash. First, it is not rare or extreme for those on the Left to promote abortion for the sake of convenience. Second, the pro-life movement generally accepts the idea that abortion should be illegal (it’s kind of a central tenant). And many people who are pro-life, like me, do not reject the idea that women who get illegal abortions should be punished.
Does that mean women should receive capital punishment such as hanging? Probably not. But does that mean we should dismiss any criminal sanctions out of hand? Is it so obviously outrageous that we can’t even talk about it? Absolutely not.
From what I can see, most people who actually care about stopping abortion understand that if you commit a crime, you do the time, as they say. That is sort of how laws work.
Despite Douthat’s careful mental gymnastics in defense of his sophisticated, socially permissible pro-life position, he seems to struggle with basic logic.
To everyone I know who claims to be pro-life, the logic is fairly clear. Step 1: unborn children are individual human beings who are endowed by God with the same right to life all human beings possess. Step 2: killing a human being requires justification (usually rooted in self-defense) for it not to be murder. Step 3: governments are instituted among men to secure our rights, however imperfectly, and this includes trying to stop things like murder even when laws prohibiting it are not perfectly enforceable. Step 4: Laws require punishments to be effective—and sometimes even severe. Common sense seems to be that if one wishes to stop (as much as is humanly possible) abortion, women who would get them must be punished if they try.
Anyone with a brain could tell Williamson was not being entirely serious when he spoke of hanging mothers who might seek abortions if the practice were illegal. Certainly, he didn’t seem to be advocating for retroactive laws. But the idea is preposterous that once abortion was made illegal, laws against the procedure could be enforced without some serious punishment for those who would participate in it. It is not strange to think this, it is entirely normal and mainstream pro-life thinking.
Undermining the Right to Life
Plenty of supposed pro-life writers and leaders argue against punishing mothers. But to do so, the honest ones at least admit it is inconsistent then to call abortion murder. Whatever these people may say, at that moment the movement stops being pro-life. Once you start jumping through legal hoops to avoid confronting the idea that it is murder, you undermine the claim of the unborn to his right to life. To do so is to abandon the only firm foundation for the pro-life position. The right to life proceeds the other concerns, not the other way around. To begin with how hard enforcing an abortion ban will be, or to start by highlighting the complexity of abortion in some instances, gets the problem backward.
Moreover, jumping through the legal hoops to avoid treating abortion as murder makes abortion different from all other unjust killings of human beings in a way that must result in keeping it legal. In what other category of homicide or murder are we inclined to chastise the aggrieved for harsh words or presuming malice? In the case of abortion, these victims have no voice (the murderers make sure of it). So you silence those who attempt to speak on their behalf? The left does not care about your arguments so long as they get their way of overcoming nature to liberate women. But they will, to keep abortion legal, exploit the complexity of your legal arguments and the sympathies found within.
Moreover the idea that the Left will be impressed or moved by conservatives who avoid thinking or speaking about abortion as murder reveals a lack of seriousness when considering the state of our politics. No one is winning over any converts from the Marxist-Feminists-Hedonistic New Left. That ship has sailed—even they know it. Every time those on the Right bow to their demands, they ask for more. Like a high school bully, the Left has mastered the art of bludgeoning well-meaning people on the Right into submission with a combination of mockery, shaming, and contempt. No matter how moderate your steps, they will say you are a bigot and you are taking away women’s rights. They are all too happy to have their harem of token conservatives to help them in this project of discrediting serious arguments so as keep the status quo or advance even further leftward.
The opinions of elite conservatives and “thought leaders” on the Right are part of the reason the pro-life movement is so strangely pro-choice and so ineffective at producing movement on this issue. Yeah, yeah . . . after 45 years of legalized murder and 57 million babies killed, Texas requires ultrasounds for mothers who want to kill their child or something. Big whoop. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood receives $500 million of taxpayer money from a Republican Congress while chopping up live babies to harvest their organs. Good job, pro-life movement!
Douthat and others like him are worse than anti-Trump appeasers. They appease the murder of babies. Williamson may have written like a jerk and a fool when it came to Trump, Trump supporters, and especially about people who live in the Rust Belt. But at least he had figured this out. Perhaps if movement conservatives spent less time berating fellow travelers on the Right and groveling at the feet of their liberal friends trying to win acceptance if not converts, we might actually move somewhere.
Williamson isn’t an extremist on abortion, and if we want to stop the mass murder of our children, we probably need to say so.