The recurring question that haunts pro-lifers

Libertyville Abortion Demonstration: still my favourite YouTube video of all time. No scripted comedy will ever make me laugh as hard as the monkey-puzzle looks on the faces of anti-abortion protesters when the filmmaker hits them with the question “If abortions should be illegal, what punishment should be imposed on the women who have them?” Most if not all of the interviewees are experienced at making nuisances of themselves in the name of a grand moral cause; none, clearly, are similarly experienced at unassisted moral reflection. I will never understand how the interviewee who answers the question “It’s kinda between a woman and her God” and the one who says “I leave that to society to decide” managed not to blush to death. Most certainly they didn’t skulk off home and leave the patients of that clinic alone.

At Slate.com yesterday, William Saletan updated the comedy of the pro-life double standard with a dark twist, pointing out that the State of Virginia defines dilation-and-extraction abortions as felony infanticide but exempts from prosecution the women who order, pay for, and benefit from such procedures. The law in question was the work of Governor Bob McDonell, who has refused executive clemency to a condemned murderess in an analogous situation.

Although [Teresa] Lewis didn’t pull the trigger, the governor observed, she “paid for the firearms” and “intentionally left a rear door to their home unlocked” so that her co-conspirators could commit the murders. For this, she will die.

Like other conservatives, McDonnell believes that the taking of human life, even by proxy, must be gravely punished. And like other abortion opponents, he claims that the right to life “applies to every American—born and unborn.” Yet every day, thousands of women do to their fetuses what Lewis did to her stepson. They pay to get rid of an unwanted life, and they provide access to the victim. What punishment does McDonnell propose for these women? Absolutely nothing.

Saletan does not raise the question, as he might have, why abortionists should be charged with infanticide rather than homicide. Surely this rather blunts the “message” the law is intended to convey? Indeed, one might ask how, if gametes are entitled to the full protection of the law the moment they are joined, our noble Christian forefathers ever arrived at such a concept as “infanticide”, which introduces one of those odious distinctions between life and life.

The technical answer is that, in traditional Christian civilizations which happily hanged swine thieves and counterfeiters, experience taught the magistrates that babies were sometimes discarded or destroyed by frantic, unbalanced postpartum women seeking to conceal evidence of sexual misconduct. (History’s joke on pro-lifers is that the law, in a more theocratic era, was obviously more concerned with policing that “misconduct” than it was with the life of any infant—much less a fetus.) In such an environment, “pray for the poor distracted women rather than punishing them” was really a strong argument—much stronger than it could possibly be in our libertine, egalitarian age.

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