This week, I read that the most effective way to abolish abortion may be to punish abortionists but not mothers—the mothers being able to testify against doctors to implicate them in crimes the mothers asked them to commit. According to Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, this is the mainstream pro-life position.
While I am familiar with incrementalism and the abolition of abortion movement, I have to say I was unaware that our pro-life movement had a “mainstream” lane until this week, despite my being deeply invested and engaged in the pro-life movement for many years now. Nonetheless, I’ve read comments from several evangelicals explaining that, for a long time, the mainstream pro-life position has been to offer care and compassion for abortive mothers rather than to support criminal consequences for their actions.
I am unconvinced that this is a mainstream position—at least not at the grassroots level. Perhaps it has been widely accepted amongst those in the ivory tower, but the pro-life supporters with whom I interact regularly, rarely – rarely – discuss the issue of consequences for mothers who obtain abortions. Until very recently, efforts have primarily focused on educating people and urging them to change their minds about abortion. While overturning Roe v. Wade has been a genuine hope, it has been an incredibly distant one, making discussion of consequences for illegal abortion a cart-before-the-horse scenario. Legal ramifications for abortive mothers have simply not been the leading discussion, so we are only now earnestly embarking upon debate about who should be held responsible for killing babies if indeed Roe is no longer able to prevent states from making abortion illegal.
In early 2022, the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case positioned the abortion debate onto its most public stage in decades and illuminated the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned. The leak of a potential United States Supreme Court decision indicating the Court could be poised to rule against Roe has fanned the flames of debate about abortion and now also debate about criminal consequences in the case of a post-Roe America.
In a May 13 article, Burk said pro-life advocates “believe that it should be illegal to perform abortions” and therefore, “favor policies that punish those who perform abortions, not the mothers who allow them.”
This—punishment for doctors but not mothers—has not been my understanding of the pro-life position, and gauging from discussion on social media surrounding this issue, I am not alone. Many agree that unborn children should be protected under the law and that killing them should bear serious consequences for those responsible for their death. Others believe women are victims of abortion alongside their babies and that their victimhood should absolve them from criminal culpability.
Though there are no doubt many well-meaning pro-life advocates promoting the latter view, I firmly believe that shielding women from criminal consequences associated with killing pre-born children is a morally flawed position. A few considerations:
1. Abortion is intentional. Abortion is not something a mother simply “allows.” In the vast majority of abortions, a mother seeks an abortion. She enters a medical building or abortion clinic, speaks to a receptionist, signs paperwork, often pays for the procedure, dresses in a medical gown, and lies her pregnant body down wherever instructed to prepare for an abortion procedure. Abortion does not just happen to a woman; rather, abortion is something a woman has sought out and scheduled. The act is pre-meditated.
2. Abortion is murder. To compare apples-to-apples, it is important to dispense with the euphemism of “abortion.” An abortion is the intentional, pre-meditated killing—the murder—of a human person in a womb. The two primary differences between murdering a person in a womb versus murdering a 2-year-old, for example, are location (womb versus world) and age (fewer than 42 weeks versus 24 months). Does location or age alter a person’s humanity? Of course not. But if not, the critical question is this: Why, then, should killing a child in the womb elicit any less righteous outrage than killing a 2-year-old? Why should we be horrified and demand swift justice when we hear a mother has drowned her 2-year-old in the bathtub but be nuanced and respond with care and compassion when a mother hires someone to poison or dismember the child in her womb? To respond differently to these two situations is to be inconsistent and to apply “unbalanced weights and measures” (Prov. 20:10). Further, some evangelicals, including a current candidate for SBC president, assert that since a mother does not use her own hands to abort the child but rather pays a doctor to do so, the child has not died at the hands of the mother but of the doctor. This is an incredible splitting of hairs and a stretch of logic beyond its elasticity. In May 2022, a jury convicted a woman of murder-for-hire in the killing of her boyfriend’s sister. She now faces punishment of up to life in prison. The case of United States v. Hernandez established that to convict someone of conspiring to commit murder-for-hire, “the government must show an agreement by two or more persons to achieve the unlawful purpose of murder-for-hire.” The truth is that in an abortion, a woman conspires with a doctor in the murder-for-hire of her own child.
3. Abortion is a choice. Those who support abortion often appeal to women’s moral agency, maturity, autonomy, and ability to know and choose what is best for her. At the same time, those who oppose consequences for women who obtain abortions appeal to women’s naivete, ignorance, lack of understanding, and inability to avoid allowing someone to perform a deadly-to-baby and destructive-to-mom procedure on them. Is a woman able to choose? Is she tough, intelligent and the master of her own body as feminism and the pro-abortion lobby say? Or is she fragile, weak, unable to think for herself and hopelessly prone to victimization? While trafficking and physical force may account for a small percentage of abortions, statistically, the overwhelming majority of abortions are obtained by choice.
Consider the women who wear baby-eating-alligator earrings, who join in the #ShoutYourAbortion trend, who bake “Happy Abortion Day” cakes, who make TikTok videos celebrating their trip to the abortion clinic, and who film themselves ingesting abortion medication supposedly to kill their children in front of a crowd. Are these victims? Perhaps you could argue that they are victims of a godless culture, less than stellar childhoods, the greed of the abortion industry and, overall, the schemes of Satan who comes only to “steal, kill and destroy” (Jn. 10:10), but these are simply the facts of living in a fallen world. Women who seek abortion are not victims in the same way that babies are. One person has the ability to get up, trash her medical intake form, and walk out of the abortion clinic. The other person is trapped at the back wall of the womb, unable to speak, unable to scream, and unable to escape the metal teeth of the abortionist’s instrument or vacuum. That person is the victim.
Some may say, “Yes, but women simply do not understand what an abortion is. They may be hurting, scared, and desperate. They don’t realize an abortion kills a real person.”
First, what a low view of women’s intelligence. For women who want to be seen as equals in the workplace, to break glass ceilings, and to rise to positions of leadership and influence, the narrative that women are often too stupid to understand abortion is perhaps one of the most counter-intuitive lines of reasoning I have heard.
Second: Women are not that unintelligent. They sometimes (often) feign ignorance to manipulate situations and emotions and to play the damsel in distress, but by-and-large, women are smart, informed, and capable—as any self-respecting pro-choice feminist would affirm. An abortion-seeking woman obviously knows enough to know she has a problem: She is unexpectedly or undesirably pregnant with something in her abdomen she believes will at some point turn into a child she does not want. She knows enough to know she wants a solution to make her problem—a child—go away. So, while she certainly may be scared, hurting, and desperate, she is most likely not an unthinking, ignorant victim.
And yet, even if a woman is ignorant of what an abortion entails and constitutes, ignorance does not always absolve a person of responsibility for his or her actions. If a person truly does not know how many alcoholic drinks could inhibit his driving and lead him to kill someone by driving drunk, there is usually still a penalty for that person’s actions. If a person has not been to a firearms safety class and does not understand how to handle a gun, use the safety, or avoid accidental firings, the person still may face criminal charges if he shoots and kills another person. Ignorance does not always preclude us from penalties.
Burk says prosecuting abortionists may be the best way to abolish abortion. I respectfully contend, however, that applying the same legal standard to women who kill their babies in the womb as is applied to women who kill their children at any other stage of development would serve as an incredibly effective deterrent. If tomorrow abortion was illegal and violation of that law carried the same punishment for killing a born child, I am confident we would see an immediate decrease in the number of women willing to undergo abortions. And, if we decrease the number of women creating a demand for abortion, the number of abortionists will necessarily dwindle.
I believe—mainstream or not—honoring God’s standards for right and wrong, His system of balanced weights and measures, and His plan for government to serve as ministers of justice—even when it comes to mothers as offenders—is not only the most effective but also the most morally consistent way to end and address abortion.