Donald Trump has backed off his suggestion that there "has to be some form of punishment" for women who had abortions if the procedure were made illegal. The original comment, in an interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, brought condemnations down on Trump from abortion-rights supporters — including Hillary Clinton — but also from anti-abortion spokespeople.
As my colleague Carla Hall noted on this blog:
"While antiabortion advocates have made it as difficult as possible in various states for women to get an abortion, often use language that equates abortion with murder, and hope for a day when Roe vs. Wade is overturned, rarely do they suggest criminalizing a woman seeking an abortion in that world. That's, at least, in part because, politically, even they know what Trump apparently didn't: No one would stand for that."
But that is precisely why Trump's original comment was so disruptive. It exposed a contradiction in a lot of anti-abortion rhetoric that those activists cannot explain away, hard as they try.
If abortion is murder — or the moral equivalent thereof — it's absurd to suggest that only the doctor who performs an abortion should be criminally responsible.
That's Trump's new position: "The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb."
Put aside the paternalism of this explanation. (Women are pawns of presumably male doctors with no control over their own actions.) It defies logic to suggest that a person who initiates criminal act ought to be immune to punishment for it. At the minimum, the woman who seeks an abortion is an accessory to murder — if you believe abortion is murder.
Certainly many abortion foes regard having an abortion as a sin. Pope Francis, for example, has empowered all priests to offer women absolution for the "sin of abortion" as part of the church's "Year of Mercy." But a papal spokesman made clear that forgiveness would be available only to "women who have had an abortion and have repented." You don't have to repent if you weren't at fault.
The secular parallel to a sin is a crime. Murder is both a violation of the 10 Commandments and an offense against the civil law. Committing murder incurs penalties both spiritual and penal: prison in this life, hellfire or Purgatory in the next. Why should it be any different for abortion — if abortion is murder?
Trump was on solid logical ground in his first answer if you accept the "abortion is murder" premise. And many abortion foes cling to that premise because it provides moral clarity to their crusade. If they were admit that abortion, while the taking of a life, was something less than murder, that clarity would disappear and their message would be muddled.
But, as a matter of logic, they can't have it both ways any more than Trump can.