In this year, 2016, the Republican nomination process has been the most entertaining reality show on television, but the other night the show took a strange turn. Donald Trump said something that has angered both the right and the left of the political spectrum, which is not surprising or unusual. But what is surprising is that what he said should have been supported by the right. In fact, his position is the only logical one given the rhetoric of the Pro-life movement.
Let’s wade into this controversy and see where the logic takes us.
In a recent interview on MSNBC, Donald Trump suggested that if abortion became illegal, then women who get abortions should face some sort of punishment. At first glance, I see nothing controversial about someone saying that if “X” became illegal (whatever it is), then violating the law with regard to “X” should involve some sort of punishment. Generally speaking, illegal activities carry penalties for those who are caught doing them.
For this statement, however, he was denounced by his primary rival, Ted Cruz. This is not surprising, since they are competitors. However, he was also denounced by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) – a prominent pro-life advocacy group.
Just so there is no misunderstanding, here is Cruz’s statement, taken from his website:
“On the important issue of the sanctity of life, what’s far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it’s also about the mother — and creating a culture that respects her and embraces life. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing women; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.”
And here is NRLC Political Director Karen Cross:
“For years, for our history, we in the Right to Life movement have been opposed to imposing penalties on women who have abortions. We see them, we see both the unborn child and the mother as victims in an abortion.” (Quoted from the WV Metro News, March 31, 2016)
Now before we compare what they say to the pro-life position, let’s define that position. There are, as I see it, two different pro-life umbrellas. The first is based on practical considerations: abortion represents a failure of some kind. Perhaps the situation was the result of a failure of education, contraception, broken relationships, poverty, or of a less-than-ideal welfare state. Since elective abortion, on this view, represents an unpleasant symptom of some underlying problem, the goal would be to pursue policies that would reduce the number of abortions performed by solving those problems. From what I can tell from his public statements, President Obama is pro-life under this definition. The “safe, legal, and rare” phrase from Bill Clinton is another example of this position. I believe it “counts” as a pro-life position since those who hold it consider abortion to be a negative and then also take steps to reduce its occurrence. It is quite different from a position that abortion is a positive social good (for an example, read Valerie Tarico’s article in Salon advocating a fully pro-abortion view), yet it is the weaker of the two pro-life positions.
The second pro-life position casts the issue in moral terms: the unborn life is not merely a potential human. Instead it is, in fact, fully human from the moment of conception. Therefore, to purposefully destroy that life is murder. Perhaps it is even worse, since the unborn child is the most vulnerable of the human species, the one most deserving of its mother’s protection. We should have the same kind of moral outrage toward an elective abortion that we would have toward any other act of violence against children. According to this view, an elective abortion is an extreme act of child abuse.
The difference between these two views is analogous to the difference between someone who is a vegetarian for health reasons (practical) and someone who is a vegan because they believe that killing and eating animals for our own enjoyment is evil (moral).
What I find interesting about this dust-up over Donald Trump’s comments is that I always thought that the NRLC and Ted Cruz were moral pro-life advocates rather than practical pro-life advocates. When asked about abortion, Ted Cruz stated that he believed in the sanctity and dignity of human life. Likewise, the NRLC does not shy away from calling the fetus a “baby” and stating that life begins at conception – in fact its website is full of articles arguing for the personhood of the unborn. Yet if we look at these two statements responding to Trump, Cruz and Cross cannot possibly be moral pro-life advocates without a severe case of cognitive dissonance. In order to see why, try this experiment: replace abortion with an ethically equivalent action. If they are advocating a practical position, we can replace abortion with something similarly impractical and the statement will make sense. Let’s try Karen Cross’s statement and switch abortion with drug abuse:
“For years, for our history, we in the drug prevention movement have been opposed to imposing penalties on drug users. We see them, we see both the drug user and the people they hurt as victims of the drug trade.”
That sounds reasonable, no? Now we can switch abortion with another crime just as heinous on the moral position. Let’s try regular homicide:
“For years, for our history, we in the Crime Prevention movement have been opposed to imposing penalties on people who kill others. We see them, we see both the murder victim and the murderer as victims in a homicide.”
That sounds like the worst kind of evil doublespeak. Now let’s do the same with Cruz’s statement, again with drug enforcement:
“On the important issue of the war on drugs, what’s far too often neglected is that being against drug abuse is not simply about the drugs; it’s also about the users— and creating a culture that respects them and understands their struggle. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing drug users; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift that they are.”
Oddly enough, that sounds like something one of the end-the-war-on-drugs pundits might say. It does not sound contradictory or monstrous. Again, let’s try rewriting his statement with something morally terrible:
“On the important issue of child abuse, what’s far too often neglected is that being against abuse is not simply about the child; it’s also about the parents— and creating a culture that respects them and embraces their role in the child’s life. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing parents; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.”
Like our second modification to Cross’s statement, this makes no sense at all. If we valued children, we would protect them from those who abuse them. If we believed that child abuse was morally evil in the highest degree, we would be advocating the harshest sentences for those who would harm the innocents. I tried this experiment with both morally outrageous crimes (rape, police brutality, human trafficking, etc…) and mere economic crimes (petty theft, property damage) and found them to give identical results. I see no way to make the perpetrator and victim morally equivalent (by declaring them both victims) without also denying the moral significance of the action.
The NRLC and Ted Cruz have made statements that cannot be reconciled to the moral pro-life position. Rather, their language fits better with a practical pro-life position instead: a position that regards abortion as an unpleasant action that should be minimized as much as possible. But morally evil? The murder of a human being? Definitely not. That would mean that those who did it would be deserving of punishment. According to these statements from Cruz and Cross, poisoning a stray cat (a class A misdemeanor in Texas) is deserving of greater punishment ($4,000 for a first offense) than killing your own unborn child.
What is most ironic about this situation is that Cruz’s statement is titled: “Donald Trump Hasn’t Seriously Thought Through the Issues.” On the contrary, it seems to me that Trump is the one who truly understands the logical outcome of the moral pro-life position.
I welcome your comments – do you think it is possible to reconcile their statements with the moral pro-life position I have outlined?