Last week, Anna Quindlen chided pro-life activists (captured by AtCenterNetwork on YouTube) for not being able to answer the question, "If abortion is made illegal, what should the penalty be for women who have abortions?"
It's true that most of the pro-life activists in the video appear to be caught completely off-guard. It's painful to watch these good-hearted pro-life advocates so quick to blurt out that abortion should be illegal and so unprepared to explain what that view might mean practically. They are a great illustration of the need for STR's pro-life training.
What's tragic is that the question is not difficult. If abortion is made illegal, it should be made illegal because it kills an innocent human being. If a woman gets an illegal abortion, the law should punish her the same way it punishes anyone involved in any other killing act.
So what is the punishment?
Five minutes into the video, a pro-lifer gives the right answer: it depends. As with any other homicide, the intent and premeditation of those participating in the abortion has to be taken into account.
Imagine that Fred is found dead in his bedroom with a knife in his back. A woman named Maggie is sobbing next to him. Maggie turns out to be Fred's wife (now widow). The knife has fingerprints on it...Maggie's fingerprints. Curiously, three sets of muddy footprints lead into the room from a window and out of the front door. Outside the front door, the footprints stop and comingle. It appears there was an altercation there as well. Maggie sobs and sobs. Through her tears she confesses, "I can't believe I killed my husband!" How should Maggie be punished?
Clearly, you cannot answer the question without more information. You have good reason to believe that the Maggie put the knife into Fred's back. But there are unexplained footprints. Who else was involved and in what way? And there is an equivocal statement from Maggie. She might be astonished that her plot succeeded. She might be regretful that her plot succeeded. She might be regretful that an accident occured. She might be saddened that when she attempted to save her husband's life by wielding the knife at his attacker, the attacker moved out of the way so that the knife missed its intended target. Until we know the intentions of Maggie and the other actors in this bedroom drama, we can't assign punishment.
It's the same with women (or doctors) who would be prosecuted for illegal abortion. The doctor might be prosecuted under a murder charge and the woman might be prosecuted under a manslaughter charge. It might be murder or manslaughter for both parties. The point is, you cannot know what the charge should be without knowing about the intentions and premeditation of the actors. Whether the woman or doctor knows the unborn is a human being may also be relevant to the legal calculation.
So, should she be sent to jail? I don't know. Two of the pro-life activists late in the video make the comment, "I'm not a lawyer." This seems like an evasion, but it's actually very astute. The assignment of punishment is a complicated matter. It depends on intent, premeditation, and other relevant factors.
The point of the question is to unnerve and embarass pro-lifers. We needn't be embarassed at all. We can simply say, "I think women who get illegal abortions should be prosecuted according to the same standards we use to prosecute all other lethal harms." The response lacks the inconsistency criticized by abortion-choice advocates. It also lacks the over-simplification hidden in the abortion-advocate's question.