That endless crashing sound you heard last week wasn’t the long-expected Trump Kristallnacht. It was, instead, the sound of pro-life activists all over the nation throwing their televisions out the window and their phones at the wall, as they heard the Republican front-runner destroy the work they had been doing for forty years in the space of a few careless minutes.
As a person who has been pro-choice most of his life (“very pro-choice,” as he has himself said), Donald Trump appears to be entirely unfamiliar with the philosophical underpinnings of a position that could reasonably be called “pro-life.” Instead, what he expressed that night might be more accurately termed “reflexively anti-abortion.” In other words, Donald Trump doesn’t like abortion, but he has never seriously thought through the implications of that position.
By contrast, every fifth-grader that ever stood silently holding a sign reading “God Forgives Abortion,” or “Abortion Kills Children” during the annual Life Chain national event could have answered the “trick question” that Trump screwed up. When asked, in a hypothetical situation in which abortion is outlawed, “Do you want to punish women?” the answer is NO.
This is one of the first questions a pro-life debater faces. Pro-choice people think it’s the cleverest thing they’ve ever thought of, believing it puts pro-lifers in an uncomfortable dilemma—be an outlaw, or be an unfeeling monster. If it’s illegal, shouldn’t you want to punish the criminal? Don’t you believe in law and order? If you say yes, you cede the moral high ground of compassion to the pro-choice debater who will then go on to wipe the floor with your woman-hating corpse. So to speak.
It is the abortion equivalent of “If God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big he himself can’t lift it?” It’s a ridiculous question, but everyone who asks it thinks it’s the ultimate stumper.
For decades, the pro-life movement has patiently explained that its fundamental, foundational belief is that abortion is a tragedy. It is a traumatic event. It creates two victims—the unborn child, murdered before it can draw a breath, and the wounded woman, tricked into committing a moral transgression and a mortal sin that will leave her scarred for life. The movement has never advocated punishing an abortive woman. This is such a key concept to the pro-life worldview that not even the farthest fringes of pro-life thought—even the few lunatics that have actually carried their activism into violence and murder—have ever held that position.
When abortion was illegal prior to Roe — and even now in states where abortion is illegal after a specific point of gestation—the woman was not punished. In the history of the pro-life movement—and I know because I literally wrote the book on the subject—no serious leader has ever said yes to the question Trump was asked.
As Chris Matthews tossed out what I’m sure he thought was only the beginning of a clever argument that would trick Trump into revealing that deep down, he wasn’t really pro-life, he just hated women, Trump just said yes. There would have to be “some form of punishment.”
If you could have seen the faces of pro-life activists around the country at that moment, I’m sure you would have seen something akin to the stunned face of CNN’s Don Lemon a few weeks ago in an interview with former Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella about Breitbart’s handling of Corey Lewandowski’s alleged manhandling of reporter Michelle Fields. “Are you saying they’re lying?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” said Bardella.
Don Lemon was momentarily speechless, having expected to be lied to. It was one of those “that wasn’t supposed to happen” moments.
For pro-lifers, the “punish the woman” question is as routine as the “are they lying” question. No one expects a different answer. Don Lemon expects to be lied to, and pro-lifers expect to be disbelieved when they say they don’t want to punish the woman. That’s the beginning of the conversation.
What they don’t expect is for someone claiming to be their standard-bearer in the only political party that bears their standard to say “yes.”
Because that is the wrong answer.
The clean-up crew that issues press releases explaining what on earth that man could possibly have meant immediately tried to fix it by saying he didn’t really mean that—he only meant doctors (because of course the word “women” sounds so much like the word “doctors.”) There was a brief pause in the deluge of pro-life Tweets and Facebook posts excoriating Trump. Perhaps he just misspoke. There was, mercifully, only the slightest recognition that in the same conversation he had opined that women might have to resort to, essentially, so-called “back-alley abortions” if his plan to ban them happened.
The next day, however, the damage continued all day long, as talk radio hosts strained to excuse and explain what the man meant, while Trump-cultists, who had clearly never given ten minutes’ thought to abortion in their lives, called in to ask “well, if it’s illegal, why shouldn’t the woman be punished?”
It was a bad day for the pro-life movement—which already had a somewhat delicate relationship with the Trump campaign, given that most pro-life and pro-family organizations and leaders that have endorsed, have endorsed Ted Cruz, while formerly revered individual leaders of the movement, like Sarah Palin and Phyllis Schlafly, have gone into the Trump camp. It was a bad day for talk radio, as callers who didn’t know anything about pro-life philosophy called in to assure talk-radio hosts—many of whom also didn’t know anything about the movement–that punishing the woman would be in keeping with the “rule of law.” Those people complained that Trump had been “forced” to back down because of pressure from some vague cabal of “political correctness” police.
Pro-life activists probably took a lot of Tums that day.
That same day, word leaked that, in an interview that would air Saturday, Trump had blundered his way into two more distinct positions on abortion, even while telling John Dickerson that “this” (presumably CBS?) wasn’t “the right forum” to discuss the matter. One is at a loss to know what would have been—a church? An abortion clinic? Mars?
Although Friday was April first, Trump’s abortion position was apparently not intended to be a joke when he said, “right now the [abortion] laws are set.” And then he said, “And I think we have to leave it that way.” Then he said “I don’t disagree” with the proposition that abortion is “murder.”
Spokesperson Hope Hicks quickly did the damage control: “Mr. Trump gave an accurate account of the law as it is today and made it clear it must stay that way now—until he is President. Then he will change the law through his judicial appointments and allow the states to protect the unborn. There is nothing new or different here.”
Except, of course, that’s ridiculous. John Dickerson wasn’t asking him to explain the law as it exists today. No one would ask, “Mr. Candidate, can you tell me what the law is today?” Although there supposedly are no stupid questions, that would be one of them. “And I think we have to leave it that way” can only mean while I’m president. Because the idea that he could have been talking about changing or not changing laws himself–in the next eight months—is absurd.
So, we are left with a candidate who believes abortion is murder, but that the law is set, but he will change it through judicial appointments (somehow), and “allow the states to protect the unborn” (again, not something the President can do). Moreover, when his judicial appointments and his orders to the states result in a ban on abortion, women will have to seek back-alley abortions and face punishment when they are caught bleeding in the alley, presumably before they die of septicemia.
Yeah, the pro-life movement was wise to give this guy a wide berth. He may be the most unhelpful ally it has ever had, and if allowed to be the nominee, will no doubt leave the movement itself bleeding in the alley by November.