The simple statement challenged years of movement messaging that insists women in those cases are actually victims who need to be protected from predatory providers, not perpetrators themselves.
Trump's impeccable reputation for misogyny has been well earned over a lifetime of viciousness toward women. But, ironically, his comment, made in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews -- which seems to be closer to his real opinion than his clumsy recanting hours later -- inadvertently expresses more respect for women and their capacity for decision-making than the alternative position taken by anti-abortion groups, who insist patients would face no legal repercussions if abortion was illegal because they inevitably would have been coerced into it by outside forces. Both positions, of course, are designed to restrict reproductive freedom, but among the two, at least Trump, to his credit, was suggesting that women are independent thinking people with their own agency, and as such should be held accountable for their decisions.
The Huffington Post interviewed Eric Scheidler, the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, about Trump’s comments on Thursday, and asked if he was concerned that Trump, of all people, seemed to be the relative feminist in the situation. “I am concerned about that," Scheidler acknowledged. "He's a strange source for a statement on behalf of women’s co-equality with men."
In the interview, he inched closer to Trump's position. "I’m not saying that every woman who walks into an abortion clinic is deluded and being lied to and a fool," he said. Scheidler had previously put out a statement saying that "women suffer from abortion" and "are lied to by the abortion industry," and women "turn to them in desperation.”
Characterizing abortion patients as victims preyed upon by providers ignores the reality that women often take matters into their own hands and order medication abortion pills online to self-induce. In such a case, there are no doctors to prosecute as the patient and the abortion provider are one and the same. And women have indeed been prosecuted for doing so in the U.S., despite what you may have thought after the outrage at Trump's position. (For more information about these cases, read this story about Pennsylvania’s prosecution of Jennifer Whalen by The New York Times’ Emily Bazelon and this story about Indiana’s prosecution of Purvi Patel by MSNBC’s Irin Carmon.)
HuffPost asked Scheidler what happens when there’s no doctor in the mix if abortion was illegal. Scheidler argued “there needs to be some sort of legal intervention,” suggesting perhaps a social worker could meet with the woman.
I don’t think jail time makes a lot of sense, because it will disincentivize women getting the medical care they need, if something goes wrong with that self-induced abortion, which after all is how we know about these few cases that have been prosecuted.
We don’t want a situation in which people aren’t seeking medical care and then another person dies, because life is precious. But maybe some other kind of intervention could be had, a social worker coming in to help the woman deal with whatever problems she has in her life, maybe some kind of state oversight of her situation, some mandatory education, something along the way that would be helping her. Because at the end of the day we’re trying to help women not to make that choice, to deal with that choice if they’ve made it, and to protect unborn children from having their lives destroyed and that always has to be our goal, not vengeance, not punitive action.
Scheidler’s right that criminalizing abortion will “disincentivize women getting the medical care they need,” since abortion is medical care. But we don’t even have to imagine what that world would look like, since we already saw it in Tennessee, where a soon-to-be-defunct law allowing women to be charged with assault if they use narcotics while pregnant led women to avoid seeking prenatal care out of fear of being prosecuted.
But Scheidler and the movement's argument about regret -- though 95 percent of women don’t regret their abortion -- also raises thorny questions. HuffPost noted to Scheidler that most people who commit murder feel remorse over what they've done, either immediately after or for years to come, or both. But society still punishes them, so why should women be treated differently?
Pragmatically, Scheidler said, there's really no other choice.
There’s really nothing like the relationship between a mother and her unborn child ... who is directly threatening your perception of your well-being in a way that no other person ever really could. It’s a really unusual relationship.
The woman is unlikely to have more than one or two abortions in her whole life, the abortionist is going to be doing abortions as his profession, even if it’s a criminal profession on the side, it’s going to be having much more of an impact, so it makes logical sense, if your goal is to save children from abortions, not to go after the woman but to go after the doctor. And the principal witness against him is going to be the woman.
Ultimately, said Scheidler, the world he's talking about is a far different one from today's. Abortions will be illegal, meaning that by definition any woman trying to get one will be in some sort of desperate situation.
"In a world in which abortion were illegal, in which the social and political climate enabled that type of a law to exist and be accepted by a majority of the people," he said, "in that world there’s going to be an element of desperation and coercion, whether by another person or by circumstances of life, to any illegal abortion."
It's a neat trick: by creating horrible, back-alley conditions that threaten the lives of women who seek unsafe abortions, the movement can then say, well, any woman who'd seek an abortion in such a situation must be crazy.
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.