How Do You Criminalize Abortion?

Election Tracker | Kieran Phelan | April 19, 2016

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In usual fashion, Donald Trump’s controversial statement on abortion caused a political firestorm, and he was even derided by his Republican counterparts who are normally in consensus with his Pro-Life stance. The gaffe occurred on MSNBC in a town-hall styled event in which Chris Matthews pressed Trump on abortion. Finally, after several moments of subject-changing and a few “This is what’s wrong with America today’s,” Trump finally stated he believed there should be “some form of punishment” for women who undergo the procedure.

As expected, both Sanders and Clinton hit Trump hard for this statement, with Sanders calling it “shameful,” and Clinton describing it as “horrific and telling.” On the Republican side, both Kasich and Cruz took aim at the frontrunner, the senator iterating that the comment “demonstrated that he hasn’t seriously thought through the issues.” Within three hours, Trump walked back his statement, eventually deciding that the woman is a victim, and the doctors performing the abortion should be the ones who are punished.

What was interesting about Matthew’s question is that it pushed the abortion argument further, requiring thought and discussion about policy instead having the candidates solely say whether they were for or against a divisive moral issue. In fact, Trump may have accidentally stumbled into an area where he put forth the only feasible plan for this issue. Regardless of what side of the aisle you find yourself on, in a country where abortion is illegal, serious conversations must be had over who should be held responsible and punishments should be had for those who perform this medical procedure.

As Trump eloquently showed in the infamous interview, Republicans have a difficult time answering the question “what comes next?” It is a good political soundbite to profess yourself as pro-life, but in order to see the effects of criminalized abortion, we should look to our neighbors in South America. Many of these countries, especially Brazil, have restrictive laws which prevent many women from receiving legal and safe abortions within a hospital or clinical setting. The Pew Research Center estimates that hundreds of thousands of women in South America are hospitalized annually as the result of botched abortions in which women attempted to end their pregnancies themselves.

As evidenced by the actions of women in those countries, if abortions were outlawed within the United States, abortifacients would become highly utilized, without the supervision of a medical professional. In this case, it is hard to see who should be punished for this attempted abortion. If the women are the victims in this situation, as all the Republican candidates have vehemently professed, do you prosecute the pharmacist? The drug manufacturer?

If we go down Trump’s initial track of punishing women themselves, which seems inevitable due to the inability to regulate personal abortifacients and back-alley clinicians, lawmakers have to take into account the difficulty in discerning between whether a woman was hospitalized due to a natural miscarriage or because she attempted to have an abortion. In Ecuador, there were multiple cases of women who had natural miscarriages being mistakenly prosecuted for abortion. Because all those on trial are innocent until proven guilty in the United States, and because it is incredibly difficult to differentiate between natural and induced abortions, many women would not be successfully prosecuted in a court of law.

So far, outlawing abortions has not proven effective in halting them, and has only led to dangerous practices in which women get hurt. In a sense, Trump’s comment, as horrible as it was to most listeners, sparked a conversation which needed to be had. Pro-Life politicians have to recognize that their actions have many unintended consequences which must be addressed before they completely outlaw this practice; otherwise, many women will be unfairly harmed and shamed in a society which no longer recognizes or respects their right to personal healthcare decisions.