It seems everyone is upset with what Trump said yesterday, that there should be some form of punishment for women having abortion. It makes sense that pro-choice people are not happy about that, but what are the pro-life people angry about? If abortion = murder, what's wrong with punishing the woman who asks someone else to commit the murder for her? It's like only punishing the hitman but not the one who hires the hitman. What's their logic here?


2 Answers 2


Multiple reasons have been given:

  • If you believe pro-choice rhetoric, pro-life people actually do want to punish the mothers, but they know that admitting it would be political suicide. Obviously the pro-life movement denies this charge, but the fact that it's a politically unpalatable position does explain why pro-life people have denounced Trump's statement so forcefully.

  • The pro-life movement often refers to pre-Roe v. Wade conditions for any question about their proposed policies. Clark D. Forsythe claimed in 2010 that in the case of this particular policy question (punishing women for abortions), "There are 'only two cases in which a woman was charged in any State with participating in her own abortion': from Pennsylvania in 1911 and from Texas in 1922. There is no documented case since 1922 in which a woman has been charged in an abortion in the United States." This is not in and of itself an argument against punishing the mothers, but it 1) provides one basis for the other reasons listed below, and 2) can be used as a rebuttal against the previous bullet point. It's also worth noting that National Right to Life claims that this has been their position since their founding in the 1960s (pre-Roe).

  • It's more important to go after practitioners of abortion, who potentially perform hundreds or thousands of abortions in their lifetime, than individual mothers who get one or maybe two abortions ever. Granting the mothers blanket immunity ahead of time makes that easier.

  • The mothers who seek abortion are often coerced or misled, making them a second victim of the abortion. This argument emphasizes that punishing a victim for a crime is absurd.

Blanket immunity

Forsythe, quoted earlier, states the "blanket immunity" argument (third bullet point above) this way:

To state the policy in legal terms, the states prosecuted the principal (the abortionist) and did not prosecute someone who might be considered an accomplice (the woman) in order to more effectively enforce the law against the principal. And that will most certainly be the state policy if the abortion issue is returned to the states.

Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition wrote a blog post about why the pro-life movement opposes prosecuting the mothers. In the comments section, he makes clear that the "blanket immunity" argument is a thoroughly pragmatic one:

If it could be shown that prosecuting women would lead to fewer abortions and more convictions of abortionists then I'd be all for it. But so far I haven't seen any plausible reasoning for assuming that would be true in the future when the consensus in the past was that it was not effective. I'm open to having my mind changed on this issue, though.

There are certainly [other] ways that a conviction [of an abortion doctor] could be secured. But the question that concerns me is "Would those means be as effective as offering a blanket immunity from prosecution?"

It appears the difference between our positions is that I would prefer to see abortion ended, even if it meant full justice was not done while you would prefer to see abortion continue unless all guilty parties met man's justice.

The mothers as victims

Charles Camosy, responding to the idea that prosecuting the mother would make sense, says:

That might be true if women have an uncoerced choice to have an abortion. But as I argue in some detail in my book "Beyond the Abortion Wars," that’s not how our culture works. Broadly legal abortion is the product of privileged men. Hugh Hefner and his Playboy Foundation sponsored the lower court cases designed to provoke Roe vs. Wade.


Unsurprisingly, the all-male Roe court made women "free" to act like men: to imagine themselves as able to live sexual, reproductive, economic, professional lives as men do. Women's equality was not about getting equal pay for equal work. Not about getting mandatory family leave and affordable child care. Not about passing strict anti-discrimination laws in hiring practices.

What was essential for social equality, according to those responsible for our abortion laws, was that women are able to end their pregnancies when they are a burden on their economic and social interests. But being pregnant and having a child is often so burdensome precisely because our social structures have been designed by and for people who cannot get pregnant. Notice how, in this context, our abortion laws end up serving the interests of men and coercing the so-called "choice" of women. Someone who is coerced into having an abortion as a means of having social equality should not be put in jail. Women, like their prenatal children, are victims of our horrific abortion policy.

Camosy's argument seems similar to Democrats for Life's response to the Trump controversy:

Women don't need to be punished. They need jobs. Their families need jobs paying family living wages. They need greater access to affordable healthcare. They need paid family leave. They need affordable childcare. A woman needs to know that she doesn’t have to choose between her baby and her education or career.

Trump's ugly statement calling simply for punishment, while never mentioning support for women and children, is a more extreme version of the GOP's position that wants to end abortion without providing a social safety net.


Many "pro lifers" see women who have abortions as victims of abortion. For example, Mike Huckabee echoed the sentiment saying, "There are two victims. One is the child; the other is that birth mother who often will go through extraordinary guilt years later when she begins to think through what happened -- with the baby, with her."

Many pro life people see abortion as a cultural problem where society is hurting women by telling them abortion is acceptable, when actually it is both morally harmful to everyone and emotionally harmful to the women involved. If you believe that there are 2 victims of each abortion and the problem is a culture that encourages abortion, then it's quite counter-productive to punish one of the victims.

  • 8
    Before you write a comment, please note that this question specifically asked about which arguments pro-life people use, not about whether or not these arguments make sense.
    – Philipp
    Apr 1, 2016 at 15:14
  • 2
    can the same argument apply to (Islamic) terrorists and Islam?
    – chaohuang
    Apr 2, 2016 at 1:50
  • @chaohuang I suppose some people apply the same logic.
    – Golden Cuy
    Apr 2, 2016 at 6:16

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