An irony of the recent contretemps over Kevin Williamson is that a writer who delivers such a high ratio of originality to conventional wisdom would become the subject of so much repetition of ideological boilerplate. Four years ago, Williamson wrote in a Twitter exchange and said on a podcast not only that abortion should be illegal but that women who aborted their unborn children should be hanged. Last month, critics on the Left dug up those statements of his and pointed to them as self-evidently reprehensible and cause for him to be fired from The Atlantic, which had just hired him away from National Review. On the Right, many rose to Williamson’s defense by invoking the freedom of speech and, more broadly, the need for a freer exchange of ideas in mainstream media, but of course The Atlantic did not violate Williamson’s First Amendment rights by deciding not to publish his work, and the range of ideas that any publication can give space to is necessarily finite.
On neither side did many of those who weighed in on the controversy engage with any of the ideas implicit in his provocative position. From one perspective, that was fair enough, since he presented that particular opinion of his as a bold assertion, not the conclusion of a reasoned argument—although the possible lines of reasoning that lead to the position that women who get abortions should get the death penalty are worth articulating, if only to cut through the euphemism and evasion that clouds so much discussion of the issue. To their credit, a minority of commentators on each side of the Williamson affair did attempt to think the problem through, though in varying degrees of good faith.
“In some ways I appreciate Williamson’s honesty in admitting where his anti-abortion agenda leads,” wrote Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times, presenting a familiar case against the pro-life cause. “More abortion opponents should be willing to acknowledge that treating abortion as murder necessarily means treating women as murderers.” The key word is murder, which means the premeditated and unlawful taking of a human life. Virtually all abortions that are performed in the United States are premeditated by the women who procure them, but virtually all those abortions are also legal under the various state abortion laws, which conform to the stipulations of Roe v. Wade. Since, as a rule, abortion in America, as in most of the developed world, meets one condition of the definition of murder but not the other, it can’t be accurately called murder, except perhaps in rare cases, so pro-life advocates who know what they’re doing steer clear of the term.
Advocates of abortion rights often seek to discredit the pro-life movement by ascribing to it the unqualified view that abortion is murder. They aim not just to portray the movement as unschooled in the law but to characterize as psychologically horrifying the entire effort to protect unborn children. Here the loose, colloquial sense of murder does its work. It’s a strong word. It points to the murderer, imputes guilt, and conveys moral disgust.
One slander against prolifers is that they care only about unborn children and thereby degrade and dehumanize the women who carry them. An opposite slander is that prolifers only pretend to care about the unborn and are secretly motivated by misogyny. One proof of that accusation is sometimes said to be implicit in the case that prolifers make for an abortion ban with exceptions that include pregnancies resulting from rape. If the moral worth of an unborn child is equal to that of any other human being, the conditions under which he was conceived should be immaterial to the moral imperative to protect his life. If we maintain that a woman must not abort him unless he is the product of her having been raped, what are we saying except that pregnancy is her condign punishment for agreeing to have sex? If she didn’t agree to it, she’s not culpable.
That abortion-rights debating point is intended to embarrass pro-life advocates and pressure them to back off their endorsement of exceptions and to embrace a pure abortion ban, which would be intellectually coherent but politically untenable. Given the strength of public opinion on this question, the prudent course for pro-life advocates is to advance abortion restrictions that do include an exception for rape, but they need to anticipate the other side’s logic-based objection and to develop a response that is both reassuring to moderates and also philosophically cogent. I don’t propose such a response here, only the need to have one.
Even though most people do not hew to rigorous logic in their views of abortion law and policy, the logic or illogic of a position registers with them all the same. The argument for a given restriction on abortion will be more persuasive if it includes a frank acknowledgment of the philosophical problems entailed by any stipulated exceptions. It’s better to preempt than to be cornered by the objection that an exception for rape implies that our motivation in restricting abortion is to punish women for having sex. Even if it’s never voiced in the course of debate, that thought will lurk somewhere in the minds of readers and listeners. In discussing strategy with other prolifers, I’m sometimes misunderstood to be advocating philosophical purity and rejecting political prudence. What I’m advocating is debate preparation.
The consensus in the pro-life movement is that bans or restrictions on abortion should be enforced by imposing punishment and penalties only on abortion providers. The reason for exempting women who have abortions appears on the surface to be only that public opinion demands it, but here public opinion is based in a certain logic, sound though for the most part unexamined. We see the injustice of abortion, and so, to an extent, may the woman who has an abortion, but the prevailing sentiment of the surrounding culture is one of ambivalence, a blend of the feeling that abortion is wrong and of the feeling that it may be justified. That ambivalence influences her moral judgment. If she had an abortion and it was illegal, she would have broken the law but not necessarily violated either her conscience or “community standards.”
The mere discussion, let alone the enactment, of strong abortion bans or restrictions is colored by the problem of where the pro-life movement currently stands in the history of the anti-abortion cause. We have envisioned with some clarity a more just society for future generations. We take steps in its direction but cannot proceed as if we’ve already arrived. Remember that our present-day unequivocal rejection of slavery would be dismissed as extremist by most white Americans in Charleston in the eighteenth century. So it is with abortion and most Americans in 2018. “It’s going to be 150 years before this happens,” Williamson said in the podcast, meaning that we’re that far from a world in which abortion would be so unthinkable that capital punishment for a woman who had one would not be. His moral imagination is more active than most.
Born and adopted a few months before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, he wonders whether his mother would have aborted him had he come along just a little later. He’s thought it through. The indignation you might feel at his talk about hanging is a mirror image of the indignation he feels that he might have come that close to being on the wrong end of a suction device or pair of serrated forceps. “Anyone who actually went to school on his voluminous, scintillating body of work would know that his tweets and podcast commentary about hanging women who abort their babies were bracing observations about the barbarity of killing the defenseless, not a summons to the gallows” is how Andrew C. McCarthy summed up the matter at National Review Online.