Punishing women for seeking abortions is nothing new. But thanks for the reminder, Mr. Trump.
Many people, including a number of Republicans, profess to being scared and shocked by Donald Trump’s recent comments about abortion. Donald Trump said in a new interview Wednesday that he would support banning abortions, as well as “some form of punishment” for women who undergo the procedure illegally. However, he could not determine what that punishment should be. Of course, he later backed away from those comments amid criticism from rivals in both parties.
But, as with so many other issues, it seems Trump is the only one being completely honest about the mindset of abortion opponents. Perhaps the shock some are feeling is that Trump let the cat out of the bag. Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, issued a statement that “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion.” But, as Hillary Clinton noted about Trump’s rivals, “maybe they aren’t quite as open about it as Donald Trump was earlier today, but they all have the same position. If you make abortion a crime—you make it illegal—then you make women and doctors criminals.”
To be clear, Trump was talking about a hypothetical future in which abortion is illegal, and thus he envisioned some type of punishment for breaking the law. Indeed, throughout history anti-abortion laws have provided a range of penalties for performing an abortion, providing poisons for the purposes of abortion or even providing information about abortion methods. These penalties included death, prison time, and monetary fines.
However, Trump’s comments are properly described as an “accidental foray into logical thinking, in which he correctly surmised that if abortion is illegal, it makes no sense not to hold the primary perpetrator legally liable.” More importantly, his comments illuminated the fact that women are punished every day for having abortions, for using contraception, or for even considering such options. The reason for this is that some women’s sexuality is a threat, one that must be allowed only in certain narrowly prescribed circumstances, which must result in pregnancy and childbirth. Indeed, Trump’s position—revealed in the same interview—that the man who gets a woman pregnant would have no legal responsibility for an abortion bolsters this point.
At the extreme end of punishment, we can look to various places around the world that continue to prosecute women for illegally ending their pregnancies. Women in El Salvador, Ecuador, the Philippines, among other places, can serve multiple years in prison if convicted of having an abortion. Even here in the United States, women with few legal options to end their pregnancies may face arrest and prosecution for purchasing abortion-inducing medication online. Other women have been charged with murder for allegedly seeking to harm their fetuses by attempting suicide, using illicit drugs, or even falling down the stairs.
But punishment comes in many forms. We need look no further than the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion unless the pregnancy arises from incest, rape, or to save the life of the mother. This means that women who wish to end their pregnancies but do not fall under those stated exceptions are punished financially for seeking to exercise their constitutional rights. And, for poor women with no private funds to pay for an abortion, this can constitute an undue burden on exercising those rights.
Those in Congress who seek to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides a wide range of health services to millions of women, are similarly seeking to punish women for even associating with a place that also provides abortions, even though it does not do so with federal funds. Similarly, the reduction of funding in Title X, the traditional family planning program in the United States, cannot logically be in service of a goal of reducing abortions as such family planning prevents unintended pregnancies and abortions. Rather, the reduction of funding is to punish women who seek to take charge of their reproductive destiny.
The rise of TRAP laws is another example of legislatures seeking to punish and target abortion providers by requiring medically unnecessary facility modifications, staffing requirements or admitting privileges, in turn punishing women by making abortion less accessible as more clinics close. This additionally forces women to overturn their work and personal lives in the effort to reach far off clinics and gather money for travel. In other words, their punishment is both financial and emotional, and they are stigmatized for a legal choice they’ve made.
We can add waiting periods, mandatory counseling, and forced ultrasounds to this growing list of punishments. Indeed, they are just some of the punishments included in the hundreds of abortion restrictions adopted by states since 2010.
Further proving that women are punished not only for seeking abortions but more broadly for seeking to control their reproductive choices, earlier this week the conservative Supreme Court justices hearing arguments on Zubik v Burwell appeared to be perfectly comfortable forcing women to separately purchase birth control-only plans if their employers are religious objectors who don’t want to provide such coverage.
So, while it has always been about punishing women, we can thank Trump for admitting as much.
Ariel Chesler is an attorney and writer in New York. He lives with his wife and two daughters, and one cat. He is the son of feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chesler.