Ilyse Hogue is president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson says that, past comments to the contrary notwithstanding, he doesn’t think women should be hanged for having abortions. But he still wants them to be punished somehow. So really we’re just negotiating the terms.
Williamson made headlines in April for being hired and, after his views touched off a firestorm online, he was very quickly fired by the Atlantic magazine. Now he aims to make clear what he says the so-called Twitter mob — actually, women and men across the country with real concern about his beliefs — wasn’t interested in knowing: What Williamson truly thinks the punishment for abortion should be. “Only real-world experience will show what is effective, and our preference should be for the least-invasive effective settlement,” he writes in a Post op-ed. I suppose that’s meant to be reassuring.
For me and millions of women who, like me, have had abortions, however, Williamson’s words are deeply chilling, even when watered down. And this is not because of where they might lead, though that is cause for concern, too, but because of what they say about reality — about where we already are.
In fact, women are now punished every day for seeking reproductive health care in this country. It’s getting hard to count all of the various legislative measures in place, or being contemplated, to make accessing abortion services difficult, costly and humiliating.
Depending on where you live, you might be subjected to medically disproved lies about the psychological and physical consequences of your decision to have an abortion, or have to endure a state-mandated time-out before you can act on your decision. You may be forced to undergo an invasive ultrasound and to disclose your reasons for terminating your pregnancy to strangers. If you are a rape survivor, you may be made to experience further trauma through needless delay. if legislation now under court challenge is allowed to go into effect, you might have to consult your rapist. When you visit a clinic for care, you may be harassed and threatened with violence. If you continue to speak openly about your decision, expect this punishment to become part of your life.
There are financial penalties, too. Many health-care insurance companies won’t cover the procedure. Because of the paucity of clinics in various places, you might be required to pay for travel, to pay to stay overnight, to lose wages or even your job and, since most women seeking abortions are already mothers trying to care for the families they have, to pay for child care.
“I differ from most pro-lifers in that I am willing to extend criminal sanctions to women who procure abortions,” Williamson writes. He may consider himself to be an outlier on criminal penalties, but culturally, and legislatively, Williamson has won the punishment argument: No wonder as a candidate, Donald Trump was so quick to say as much in a well-publicized interview. As a neophyte to the politics of the organized anti-choice movement, Trump was merely saying out loud what is easily observed.
And about that “hanging” tweet: Williamson may say he didn’t mean it, but for some it’s not so outlandish. In March, 20 Ohio legislators introduced a bill that would punish women with life in prison, or potentially even the death penalty, for choosing abortion. Last month, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Idaho suggested, before backtracking, that women should receive the death penalty for abortion. Further, outside of the law, we know that deranged individuals have taken matters into their own hands. After speaking of my own abortion from the stage of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, my social media feed was so full of vile threats and grotesque Photoshopped images of myself that I advised close family members not to look for awhile.
I sympathize with Williamson; getting fired must be hard. But you know what’s terrible? Having to worry about whether someone harassing you is unhinged enough to follow through on tracking you or your family down in real life. Whether meant seriously or not, any suggestion that women should be hanged is a form of public shaming that fosters humiliation and plants ideas. As women, we already live the experience that Williamson advocates.
While Williamson claims to recognize that the interests of women are core to his concerns, he shows a disregard for our humanity in his arguments. Conversations about punishing women for seeking reproductive health care — especially conversations that fail to even notice the extent to which we are already being punished — speak volumes about his truth.