The latest from our increasingly absurdist election season: Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump stated that there would have to be “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions if Roe v. Wade were overturned and the procedure were outlawed in the United States, but that men wouldn’t bear any responsibility.
On Wednesday, Trump was questioned about the implications of banning abortion nationwide by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, as part of a pre-taped town hall. Matthews pressed Trump to clarify what, if any, criminal consequences there would be for women who sought abortion if the landmark Supreme Court decision were overturned.
“This is not something you can dodge. If you say abortion is a crime or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under the law. Should abortion be punished?” Matthews said.
True to form, Trump hemmed and hawed: “Look, people in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans, would say, ‘Yes, it should.’”
Then, the desperate grab for supporters: “I am pro-life. Yes. I am pro-life,” Trump said as Matthews pushed him for specifics on what such a ban would look like. “The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment. There has to be some form.”
Matthews followed up again: “What about the guy that gets her pregnant? … Is he responsible under the law for these abortions? Or is he not responsible for an abortion decision?”
Trump: “Different feelings. Different people. I would say no.”
His play for pro-life support didn’t work, because his statements reflected nothing of the real pro-life movement. Serious members of the pro-life movement would affirm that while they wish to make abortion illegal, they seek to do so in order to save unborn children and to legally recognize the dignity of unborn human life — not to punish women. Indeed, the movement has historically opposed punishing women who have abortions, noting that women who face unintended pregnancy are often under stress and that the goal of the pro-life movement is to make abortion not the only answer.
This understanding has been a major point of confusion in the abortion debate. Some abortion rights activists can’t conceive of why someone might seek to end abortion other than as part of a larger war on women’s bodies, and their suspicions that the pro-life movement is anti-women are confirmed by supposed pro-lifers like Trump, who co-opt pro-life rhetoric even when they are in fact more interested in curbing women’s rights than they are in saving the unborn.
Unfortunately, like many distasteful segments of a larger party, these pretenders are often quite vocal. Yet most pro-lifers would (and in fact have) disavowed that wing. Most people would call them misogynists.
The fact that Trump would claim to be pro-life while stating that women should be punished for having abortions shows how new he is to the movement– if he believes in it at all, apart from viewing pro-lifers as another segment of voters to make a desperate grab for. And true to form, he has since reversed his position after swift and corrective criticism from pro-life groups. But the fact that he would go further and say that men should bear no responsibility for abortion decisions makes it clear that it is neither concern for women nor even the fate of children that influences his views.
An unplanned pregnancy takes two people. Saying that the responsibility for its termination should fall only on the woman reinforces the idea that only women are at fault, only women should bear the blame and only women should be “punished” for their behavior. This sort of misogyny aligns with what seems to be Trump’s general stance on women, but spreading this idea under the guise of being “pro-life” does the opposite of help the pro-life movement. Backtracked or not, in the minds of skeptics it ties the movement more closely to its rogue and woman-harming fringe. Trump as a rhetorically flailing “pro-life” presidential nominee would be disastrous for a movement that already struggles to make itself understood.