'How Much Time Should She Serve?'
In a July 2005 video clip recently posted on YouTube, an unidentified man asks pro-life activists whether a woman should serve time in jail if she were convicted of abortion in a hypothetical post-Roe v. Wade world. The demonstrators shift feet, flush, show all the signs of thinking as they speak. The interviewer pushes them. Some of their conversations go in circles. Several of the pro-life activists admit they have been participating in anti-abortion demonstrations for years without considering the question of penalties.
Abortion rights advocates see an opportunity in that confusion. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the new National Institute for Reproductive Health are encouraging people to ask politicians, "How much time should she serve?" The question shows "that choice can be a winning issue if you force people to stop evading the hard facts," Anna Quindlen wrote in a recent Newsweek column. Quindlen suggests that people who have pro-life convictions haven't thought past their animosity to the idea of abortion.
"Perhaps rank-and-file pro-lifers haven't thought through that," responded Carrie Gordon Earll, senior policy analyst for bioethics at Focus on the Family. "But the people who are doing abortion policy in the pro-life movement have thought about that."
Olivia Gans, who had an abortion in 1981, said, "When I looked at those faces [in the YouTube video], what I saw was a comprehension that women like me are going through something that is extraordinary in its scope, but I also saw a lack of understanding of how the law works." Gans is now director of American Victims of Abortion, a branch of the National Right to Life Committee.
Quindlen wrote, "There are only two logical choices: Hold women accountable for a criminal act by sending them to prison, or refuse to criminalize the act in the first place." Not true, says Earll: "Penalizing the woman is not even on the table."
Historically, abortion legislation has recognized another choice: Hold the person who is most directly responsible for the abortion liable.
Charmaine Yoest, vice president of communications at the Family Research Council, explained that she sees abortion as an act of violence against both a woman and her child. "We've always argued that the doctor is the appropriate target because they're the ones who are actually performingthere's no nice way of saying itthey're the ones who are actually murdering the baby," she said.
As far as prosecution goes, Earll said, abortion is a more complicated issue than murder. She explained that in legal history, a woman who had an abortion was comparable to a battered woman who hurt someone in self-defense.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said abortion is not the same as murder, since there is no cultural understanding that a fetus is a person. But if abortion were made illegal and he were a state legislator, Land said, "I would probably charge voluntary manslaughter for the abortionist. If [a doctor] were convicted, he would lose his medical license for two years and spend a year in prison with the first offense, and with the second offense, he would lose his medical license for life. At which point it'd be very difficult to find a doctor who'd do them."
Such a legal stance is tantamount to "ignoring or infantilizing women, turning them into 'victims' of their own free will," Quindlen wrote. "State statutes that propose punishing only a physician suggest the woman was merely some addled bystander who happened to find herself in the wrong stirrups at the wrong time."