Americans– both pro- and anti-abortion– do not believe abortions are homicide. This idea is just a tool of the anti-abortion movement to punish and stigmatize those who have abortions. Even anti-abortion zealots do not advocate for treating those who exercise this right in the same way we do murderers. This means that the whole “abortion is murder” rhetoric is just that, rhetoric.
At the heart of the pro-life movement is a basic premise: Abortion is murder. An Idaho state senator, however, got unusual attention in February when he voiced that sentiment to a group of students lobbying for birth control measures.
Conservative writer Kevin Williamson was recently hired by The Atlantic — and promptly fired over old tweets in which he referred to the procedure as “homicide” that should be treated “like any other homicide.” He added that those who support capital punishment (which he doesn’t) should favor the death penalty for women who get abortions.
The view that terminating a pregnancy amounts to baby-killing is standard among anti-abortion activists, but it has currency beyond them. Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writes, “When pollsters ask Americans whether abortion is an act of murder or the taking of a human life, pluralities or majorities say that it is.”
But this is a rhetorical device or a moral conceit, not a well-thought-out conviction. The vast majority of people who endorse it really don’t mean it. Even they exhibit a deep sense that a fetus has an appreciably lower status than an actual person.
Williamson’s controversy is proof. What doomed him was a comment suggesting that women who get abortions should be hanged — though he later wrote, “I was making a point about the sloppy rhetoric of the abortion debate, not a public-policy recommendation.”
If abortion is morally indistinguishable from killing a newborn, though, why shouldn’t those who procure abortions be severely punished? It’s the clear logical implication of the pro-life argument.
Donald Trump inadvertently deviated from the pro-life playbook in 2016 when he said women who get abortions should face “some sort of punishment,” only to recant. Mike Pence insisted that he and Trump “would never support legislation against women who make the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.”
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said then, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”
“Healing” is not what people normally think is appropriate for cold-blooded killers, and murder is rarely portrayed as a “heartbreaking choice.” Those who speak this way are effectively conceding that abortion is fundamentally different from homicide.