Posted by: Amelia | July 31, 2007

The Logic of Choice

Via Broadsheet, I read this fantastic Anna Quindlen article about a novel tactic for pro-choicers to use when confronting anti-choice activists: demand a logical conclusion.  If abortion is criminalized, how much jail time should a woman who has one do?

If abortion is made a crime, then surely the woman who has one is a criminal. But, boy, do the doctrinaire suddenly turn squirrelly at the prospect of throwing women in jail

“They never connect the dots,” says Jill June, president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa. But her organization urged voters to do just that in the last gubernatorial election, in which the Republican contender believed abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. “We wanted him to tell the women of Iowa exactly how much time he expected them to serve in jail if they had an abortion,” June recalled. Chet Culver, the Democrat who unabashedly favors legal abortion, won that race, proving that choice can be a winning issue if you force people to stop evading the hard facts. “How have we come this far in the debate and been oblivious to the logical ramifications of making abortion illegal?” June says.

Quindlen pulls some quotes from a mini-documentary that asks anti-choice protesters outside an abortion clinic what punishment they would prescribe for women, and none can answer.  A more common approach, of course, is to punish the performer of the surgery.  Quindlen points out that this view is consistent with a paternalistic view of women as childlike victims without agency.

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. Such a view seemed to be a vestige of the past until the Supreme Court handed down its most recent abortion decision upholding a federal prohibition on a specific procedure. Justice Anthony Kennedy, obviously feeling excessively paternal, argued that the ban protected women from themselves. “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon,” he wrote, “it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.”

Punishing the doctors provides anti-choicers a convenient escape from the prospect of sending thousands upon thousands of women to jail.  We on the pro-choice side are generally of the “women have agency” mindset, so we can start by asking the other side whether they agree: are women, in their opinion, responsible for their life decisions?  If they say no, then questioning can end right there; they have been exposed as paternalists who consider women less than full and free citizens.  If yes, then we are certainly justified in holding their feet to the fire: how much jail time should a woman do for making a decision they would like to see criminalized?


  1. Excellent entry. I too frequently find myself at a loss for a good argument against anti-choicers – especially when they are very religious and fall back on religious or bible lessons as their sole argument. The current ideas of only punishing the physician make the woman just as much of a victim as the unborn fetus. Very interesting perspective.

  2. Have you seen the case of the woman in Ocean City?:

    It’s unclear how her “viable fetus/infant” (what the NYT calls it; it was 26 weeks along) died, but the strong suspicion is she killed it (i.e. aborted it — it was farther along than abortions are allowed in this country, but it’s still abortion). And Ms. Freeman has been charged with murder just as if she had murdered a born baby. So…what if the answer pro-lifers can give is, she should be charged with murder? At least, the MD Legislature, who made this a crime in 2005, seems to think so…

    Just thought this was timely & thought provoking.

  3. […] the jump, the video I mentioned in the post on abortion logic earlier in the week. Also, another lolcat.  I promise I’ll stop […]

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