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When it Comes to Abortion, Pro-Life Extremism Must Be Criticized, Too

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Political parties are increasingly becoming more entrenched in their separate, yet equally staunch, ideologies. As I wrote in my debut piece for Arc Digital:

In 2019, fractures within our political system are more noticeable than ever. Our spectrum of differences has collapsed into a rigid binarism from which there is no easy escape. The categories “left” and “right” used to accommodate a range of political philosophies. Increasingly, only the extreme versions of those perspectives are seen as morally urgent and politically viable.

Although this lamentable reality is seen across the spectrum of issues, it is most apparent when it comes to the sharply divisive topic of abortion.

I have been committed to the pro-life position since my teen years. I firmly believe in the sanctity of unborn life. As I see it, there is no good that comes from radical abortion policies. But this realization doesn’t extend only to positions in favor of so-called reproductive rights; it also applies to some proposals bearing the “pro-life” label, too.

Texas and Punishing Women

Recently, Texas state representative Tony Tinderholt, a Republican, reintroduced legislation that would have not only made the abortion procedure illegal but would have opened up post-abortive women to the possibility of receiving the death penalty for their complicity in the crime.

The bill would criminalize abortion and classify it as homicide, which would make it possible for a woman to receive the death penalty for having the procedure done. The legislation’s language directs authorities to enforce its requirements “regardless of any contrary federal law, executive order, or court decision.”

“I think it’s important to remember that if a drunk driver kills a pregnant woman, they get charged twice. If you murder a pregnant woman, you get charged twice. So I’m not specifically criminalizing women. What I’m doing is equalizing the law,” Tinderholt said during a hearing Tuesday, according to Fox4 News.

Thankfully, Representative Jeff Leach, who chairs the Texas House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, blocked the bill from advancing to a full House vote. As he put it: “I cannot and will not support nor will I let come out of this committee any bill…which targets the woman with either civil or criminal liability.”

Still, the damage has been done.

For some, defending the unborn requires a scorched earth approach. But this is misplaced moral ferocity; striving to protect life in the womb can sometimes wrongly translate to brutality toward those outside it. We’ve seen this before in the very rare, but no less horrifying, moments when abortion clinics are bombed, workers are injured or killed, and abortion doctors are murdered. It doesn’t happen often, but it should never happen at all. One cannot legitimately claim to be animated by the pro-life impulse if the action taken is something akin to mass slaughter.

There is nothing about the pro-life cause that should ever manifest itself in deadly harm against another human being. Those of us on this side of the abortion issue are often told we only care about those inside the womb. The words, actions, and proposals of some of our supposed allies have brought truth to that claim. Such behavior is a deep moral stain on what is supposed to be a highly moral pursuit. Individuals who value the whole life approach must be vocal in condemning those who bring earned shame into our midst. The proposal by Rep. Tinderholt is perverse, and was rightly denied.

I would love to be able to tell you that Tinderholt gravely misread the situation and humiliated himself with a proposal that no one wished to support. But a public hearing for the bill in April regrettably shows otherwise:

Hundreds of people attended the two-day hearing before the Texas House’s Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence. …

Committee members said that it was the first time in Texas history that public testimony was hearing on a measure to hold women criminally responsible for abortions.

There are 446 witnesses who registered their approval for the bill ahead of the hearing, the Post reported. The majority of supporters represented faith groups or local Republican parties.

Neither faith groups nor local Republican parties should be proud of including themselves in this iniquitous mess. Life-affirming organizations and individuals should never openly defile the cause by supporting and/or introducing policies that seek to counter a culture of death by introducing more suffering. By doing so, they are acting in a manner entirely inconsistent with the values they claim to hold dear.

The pro-life reaction to a woman who has had an abortion, whether she regrets it at a later date or not, ought to be compassion. Period. Any attempt to threaten punitive action against women who have had abortions is historically and philosophically out of step with the pro-life movement. This does not require a softening of what the strong pro-life position demands; abortion can continue to be seen as a deeply immoral killing. But that doesn’t necessitate seeing the woman as a murderer—not even close.

Clarke Forsythe gives the relevant historical background here:

Contrary to the pervasive myth that women were prosecuted for abortion before Roe, consistent state abortion policy for a century before Roe was not to prosecute women. Abortionists were the exclusive target of the law. That was based on three policy judgments: the point of abortion law is effective enforcement against abortionists, the woman is the second victim of abortion, and prosecuting women is counterproductive to the goal of effective enforcement of the law against abortionists. …

Leslie Reagan, in her 1997 book When Abortion Was a Crime, admits that states did not prosecute women for their abortions and concedes that the purpose behind that law was not to degrade women but to protect them.

The wisdom of not prosecuting women was based on extensive practical law enforcement experience in many states, over many years. It will certainly be influential with prosecutors and state policy makers when Roe is overturned, and that should be the policy of legislators who are interested in the effective enforcement of abortion law.

Some women, following their decision to abort, become powerful pro-life advocates. They’ve been scared, helpless, and incapable of coping, financially and/or relationally, with the ticking clock of soon-to-be motherhood. This makes them the only mentors capable of truly empathizing with girls and women who feel the same.

But even if post-abortive women become pro-life leaders, and even if they stand firmly on the side that believes abortion to be a sacred right that demonstrates bodily autonomy, their sentence should never be death. One might think this would be obvious to those who claim to value life. But one would be wrong.

Representative Tinderholt’s legislation is also wrong because it only focuses on 50 percent of the pregnancy equation. The father is left out of the picture entirely. This only serves to reinforce the erroneous assumption that a woman who finds herself with a burgeoning belly somehow magically got there on her own and will have to unilaterally dig her own way out of the situation. There may as well be a line in the legislation that states, “The sperm donor shall not concern himself with the female’s turmoil nor should he be held responsible for the desperation that leads her through the doors of an abortion clinic.” That is the second message sent by this harmful proposal.

This. Is. Not. Pro-life.

I am disheartened and alarmed by an approach to protecting unborn life that believes the best solution is to take another one. This jeopardizes the entire movement. It turns a weak criticism into a justifiable one by pointing out — correctly — that too many advocates lack a whole-life perspective, i.e., a consistent life ethic. In addition, it paints supporters with a broad brush of misogyny that is difficult to counter and worst of all, somewhat deserved.

We don’t advance the pro-life cause by introducing more torment.

We don’t promote a culture of life by leaving a trail of destruction and somehow surmising that this is the way to encourage fewer abortions.

We can’t shout, “Women, you alone are to blame!” and then ask that they consider joining our ranks and championing our cause.

Representative Tinderholt and his allies should cower in shame at not just the introduction of such a bill, but at the mere thought that we highlight life and womanhood by destroying both.

There are ways to compassionately and comprehensively tackle the abortion issue. These must be discussed. The recent, abysmal display in Texas and its subsequent failure is a lesson in how not to do it.

Kimberly Ross is a columnist at Arc Digital. Read more of her work and follow her on Twitter.

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