(Another older essay)
Before the 2008 election, I read Anna Quindlen's column on the legal consequences of abortion, should Roe v Wade be overturned by the Supreme Court, and I thought "My God, this is IT! This is the discussion that we should be having!" Quindlen made a very strong argument for all of us to think about: we need to know, if a candidate opposes abortion rights for women, what are the consequences he or she personally would expect a person to pay, if abortion was re-criminalized and that person has an abortion anyway?
If you ask most people what kind of punishment should there be for abortion, should it be re-criminalized (made illegal once again as it was before Roe v Wade), they are uncomfortable at best and cannot give a punishment (some say, “no punishment”) or at worst, they call for the death penalty for those who have abortions or perform abortions.
I think this is a question which deserves a great deal more attention, because if the religious right has its way, and abortion is re-criminalized, it will most definitely become an issue. Many people are numb to the worn out "abortion debate" and last year, many thought it might finally just be a niche issue before the last election (a refreshing change from some earlier elections); but this issue continues to mean much more than that.
In 2006, South Dakota's legislature voted to ban abortions statewide, in spite of the fact that 75% of South Dakotans polled said that they felt that increasing initiatives to prevent unwanted pregnancies was far more important than criminalizing abortion. Luckily, the people of South Dakota voted against the ban on the November (2008) ballot, but in spite of this, South Dakota lawmakers continue to go against the will of the people who elected them to represent them--and continue to introduce anti-reproductive rights legislation.
A couple of other states lined up behind SD to do the same thing. These were tester cases, put out there to test the waters in hopes of setting a precedent which could then be presented before the Supreme Court eventually to support overturning Roe V Wade once and for all.
Voters put those legislators in office, even though the majority of voters do not agree with this stance on reproductive rights for women. This is what happens when we do not ask enough questions before casting a ballot. Even though the 2008 election is now in the past, there is the 2010 election coming up which could change the balance in Congress again, and once again reproductive rights could be in jeopardy.
Overturning Roe v Wade would set back women's rights over half a century but it would also enshrine in the national payche that it is OK to force maternity on women; that the needs and desperate situations of women do not matter; that state-sanctioned misogyny is A-OK. That a man may be promiscuous, may be brutal, may force her, abuse her and impregnate her against her will, and she will be forced by the state to bear the consequences.
Quindlen also made an important point about the "prosecute the doctor, not the woman" justification, which basically regards the woman as the hapless body upon whom yet another assault was made. It seems to assume that women are not capable of rational thought and are mere bodies with no self-control or self-determination, to whom abortions are presented as the first and only option, and who are seemingly incapable of resisting a presumed pressure to go through with an abortion. I think we need to think more carefully about what this assumption implies.
If women are haplessly, helplessly, stupidly, incompetently unable to prevent abortions from happening to themselves...and this becomes enshrined in law...then what's to stop the logical next step? It cannot be going much further to decide that women who are so mentally incompetent that they can haplessly participate in what the state may deem is a form of murder also may not be competent enough for other rights? Surely an unwitting participant in murder is not trustworthy nor capable enough to vote. Perhaps a person this easily swayed by others is also too incompetent to have bank accounts, too incompetent and too stupid to own property, and so on.
Talk about a slippery slope.
Sentencing for criminalized abortion is the question that candidates in every election should be made to answer. They avoid talking about penalties and consequences because, as Quindlen points out, it is a LOSER for them in the polls! Voters carry on in ignorance thinking "pro-life" just means an innocently misguided and somewhat quaint approach to life: they think their rights are safe, yet they are coasting and not safeguarding them. The old abortion debate puts them to sleep and they think it is irrelevant.
This is exactly what the anti-abortion candidates and their followers want; they hope to slip into power with most voters never quite "getting" what they really want to do, and then change laws and alter American women's lives horribly for the worse. After they've been voted in on economic or other promises, the real agenda of taking away a woman's right over her own body will go ahead to its final stage (the first stages being the steady erosion of abortion rights ever since RvW in 1973, so that abortion, like Plan b and even contraception, is already extremely difficult to get and impossible in some states).
I don’t know how many people know this, but currently fewer than 85% of counties in the United States of America make abortion accessible for women. Reproductive rights for women have already been eroded by a steady drip of smaller bits of anti-rights legislation. If Roe v Wade is overturned or if current laws limiting access to abortion are made any tougher, women may be faced with near-total lack of control over their lives---denied access to effective female-controlled birth control, denied access to emergency birth control even in cases of rape, and finally, denied access to therapeutic abortions, even when necessary for her own health and safety.
If voters allow that to happen, it will be too late to do anything about it.
A discussion that forces candidates to admit what penalties he or she would fight for in criminalizing abortion might, just might, make complacent voters sit up and take notice. It would force people to figure out where they really stand on this issue and decide once and for all if a majority in this country really do want to take away women’s reproductive rights and are willing to back that up with prison time or capital punishment.
More important, it would force answers from candidates who will go on to hold public office and have the power to influence legislation and vote for legislation which could hugely impact 50% of the population immediately.
We need to know where candidates stand on this! Picking a candidate because he blathers on reassuringly about “family values” and morality” so that we all do the knee-jerk unthinking response, “Hey, we are moral and we value family! So maybe this guy is a good guy who will help and not hurt us!” is NOT the way for thoughtful and intelligent voters to proceed. We must force ourselves to think more deeply about these issues and the consequences of taking chances on candidates because we either don’t care or don’t have the energy to do a little research into what he or she truly stands for.
“If abortion was re-criminalized in the USA, what should be the punishment for persons who break the law and have abortions anyway?”. It’s a fair question. It is a crucially important question, too.
I hope American voters start asking that question and don't stop asking it until every candidate has been forced to answer before November 2010.