The third time Donald Trump struggled to articulate his abortion position within the span of a single Wednesday afternoon—at first telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that women should be punished when abortion is made illegal—he landed closer to the mainstream anti-abortion movement’s stance.
“The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” Trump said in a statement. “The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb.”
In a torrent of statements, major anti-abortion groups repudiated Trump’s original words that “there has to be some form of punishment” for the woman under an abortion ban and echoed his framing that abortion patients are being taken advantage of by callous providers. “The answer is clear: Women are the second victim of abortion,” tweeted Americans United for Life.
But the movement has long faced a major challenge on this front. Thirty percent of US women will have an abortion before the age of 45, according to the most recent data available. That’s millions of women who have abortions and generally don’t see themselves as victims, according to research.
While individual women’s feelings obviously vary on abortion, including regret, the most rigorous studies show that the overwhelming feeling women experience a week after an abortion is relief.
That data was drawn from a comprehensive study conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, which surveyed nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions across the country over five years. Three years later, “women in this study overwhelmingly felt that the decision was the right one for them: At all time points over three years, 95 percent of participants reported abortion was the right decision,” the authors reported, “with the typical participant having a 99 percent chance of reporting the abortion decision was right for her.”
In response to Trump’s comments, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List, pointed out that first-wave feminists, who advocated for women’s suffrage, opposed abortion. “The early feminists saw abortion as an exploitation of women and a sign that society had failed them,” she said in a statement. “It is the same case today where many women feel coerced, either by circumstances, culture or the people around them, to choose abortion.”
Those feminists were living in a time when abortion was far less safe for women. At the time, major medical groups like the American Medical Association also supported criminalizing abortion, partly on the grounds that unsafe providers would take advantage of desperate women. The fact that unsafe abortion happened anyway eventually changed the minds of the medical establishment, which would go on to influence Justice Harry Blackmun to author Roe v. Wade in 1973. Bringing abortion under legal medical practice and its advances means that abortion is now abortion 14 times safer for women than carrying to term, according to a study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The other catch with the assertion that the “person performing this illegal act upon a woman” should be punished is that the modern face of illegal abortion in the United States and across the world does not always involve the archetypal doctor in a back alley with a butcher knife. One of the same pills that doctors can administer to legally end a pregnancy, misoprostol, is widely obtained by women through pharmacies, where it may be sold as ulcer medication, or ordered over the Internet. In that case, the “abortionist” and the woman are one and the same.
Not all opponents to abortion have closed the door to penalties for women. ”Consciousness of abortion’s wrongness will not be rebuilt overnight,” wrote Matthew J. Franck, now director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution, in 2007. He proposed the law proceeding “by degrees, forbidding what it can and enforcing its prohibitions by the mildest punishments sufficient to achieve the desired results … In a more just society a generation or two after Roe, further reductions might require stronger laws.” National Review writer Kevin Williamson was blunter: In 2014, he advocated hanging for women who have abortions. This reporter profiled a full-time grassroots anti-abortion activist in Oklahoma, Toby Harmon, who said of penalties, “We want the laws for murder to apply to all people….If a woman maliciously goes in and pays a hired assassin to rip the arms and legs off her child, she should go to prison for that.”
But the kinder, softer anti-abortion movement is sticking to its proposal that women be exempted from penalties for abortion, even as women are already prosecuted in some jurisdictions for allegedly taking matters into their own hands.
And what answer does the movement offer to women who have had abortions who don’t see themselves as victims, who reject the implication that they did not autonomously make their own decision?
Said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, “ We treat women with compassion either way.”