When Kevin Williamson was fired by The Atlantic on Thursday afternoon, the Twittersphere lit up with mournful statements from conservatives, claiming Williamson had been martyred for his “views.” In their rush to defend him, they revealed several crucial truths about anti-abortion thinking in 2018, and gave the lie to the idea of a “compassionate” pro-life movement.
“Kevin Williamson: hired for his talent, fired for his views. This is chilling,” tweeted Noah Rothman, an associate editor of Commentary. “Kevin Williamson’s firing is another reminder that much of American conservatism finds itself ghettoized not by choice, but by the left’s active demands that the right be silenced,” wrote talk show host Erick Erickson. Meanwhile, commentator Ben Shapiro tut-tutted that “[the] Left continues to radically narrow the Overton Window - the spectrum of acceptable discourse.”
What was missing, here, was any acknowledgment of exactly what Williamson’s “views” were: Namely, that he had repeatedly called for women who have abortions to be executed by hanging. This “view” had become most notorious through an infamous exchange on Twitter (since deleted, seemingly as a precondition to his hiring by The Atlantic) which Williamson then expanded on in the time-honored media dude tradition of ill-advised podcasting: “[Someone] challenged me on my views on abortion, saying, ‘If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.’ And I do support that, in fact, as I wrote, what I had in mind was hanging… I’ve got a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment. I tend to think that things like lethal injection are a little too antiseptic.” He also said that abortion was “worse than your typical murder… that’s the sort of thing we generally take into account in the sentencing of other murder cases.”
So, not only did Williamson want legal abortion — a lifesaving medical procedure undertaken by one in four American women — to be subject to the same criminal penalties as a homicide, he explicitly wanted the women and trans people who get abortions to receive a worse punishment than actual murderers. That seems significantly more extreme than simply having some “conservative views.”
“His thinking on abortion puts Williamson less in line with conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley than it does with a long tradition of clinic bombers and shooters.”
I cannot speak to Williamson’s social charms, which apparently move his colleagues to defend him. (Though, full disclosure, I have met him socially — my husband was friends with a much younger entry-level National Review staffer he was dating. He is not significantly less sexist in person.) But his thinking on abortion puts Williamson less in line with conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley than it does with a long tradition of clinic bombers and shooters, including Robert Lewis Dear, who fatally shot three people and injured nine others at a Colorado Planned Parenthood in 2015, or Eric Rudolph, who conducted a series of anti-abortion bombings across the South in the late ’90s. Rudolph killed two people and injured 120, including nurse Emily Lyons, whose eye and legs were “shredded” by a nail bomb and whose body was so full of shrapnel she had to have 10 inches of intestines removed.
The problem with saying people should be killed for having abortions — as these examples, and many more, ought to demonstrate — is that people are already being killed, sometimes for having or providing abortions, and often simply for being in a building where abortions take place. Historically, the anti-abortion movement has sought to distance itself from this kind of slaughter, claiming that its motives are purely about protecting children and that the murdered targets — like George Tiller, an abortion doctor who was shot in the head after conservative TV host Bill O’Reilly repeatedly called him “Tiller the baby killer” on his show — are victims of “lone wolves” whose actions could not be foreseen or prevented. Anti-choice activists have, understandably, been very careful to distinguish people who think abortion should be punished with death from those who simply hold “conservative views.”
Yet now those same respectable conservatives ― Erickson, Shapiro, Rothman and others ― are running to defend Kevin Williamson. Which would seem to demonstrate that there has never been that much distance between the killers and the pundits at all.
In fact, Williamson’s (very) brief tenure at The Atlantic did exactly what it was intended to: It normalized his toxic views. Within weeks, Idaho lieutenant governor candidate Bob Nonini proclaimed that “there should be no abortion, and anyone who has an abortion should pay,” including, as Nonini confirmed in a phone interview with The Associated Press, being subject to the death penalty. Nonini later retracted these statements, claiming that he would only seek to criminalize the women, not kill them: “The statute alone, the threat of prosecution, would dramatically reduce abortion,” he said in a statement.
“Williamson’s (very) brief tenure at The Atlantic did exactly what it was intended to: It normalized his toxic views.”
The suggestion that women could be criminalized at all was once the third rail of anti-abortion discourse, which typically argued that banning abortion would “protect” women from their own choices. “The woman is a victim of abortion nearly as much as the baby is,” Shapiro once argued; March for Life President Jeanne Mancini makes her pitch via pseudo-feminist platitudes like “Pro-life is pro-woman… life is the empowering choice for women!”
Granted, these platitudes may already annoy feminists, with their implicit assumption that women exercising full bodily autonomy are duped idiots to be pitied and saved, but it’s also hard to see exactly what’s “empowering” about being charged with Murder One and locked in a maximum security prison, a position Shapiro now evidently considers to be within the range of normal conservative viewpoints.
This increasing acceptance of violence is bigger than Kevin Williamson. The idea of punishing women and trans people who get abortions has been edging into the mainstream since March of 2016, when Donald Trump proclaimed that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who abort. Our vice president, Mike Pence, is one of the few in the nation to actually implement such punishment: While he was governor of Indiana, Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly inducing a miscarriage. (Her conviction has since been overturned.) Nor is Nonini alone in working for criminalization: A bill in Ohio, HB 565, would classify all abortion as homicide — even in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the pregnant person — and would subject doctors and patients to criminal penalties. Since Ohio has the death penalty, that bill, too, could fulfill Williamson’s violent fantasy ― though perhaps without the gallows of which he is so proudly fond.
“The suggestion that women could be criminalized at all was once the third rail of anti-abortion discourse, which typically argued that banning abortion would 'protect' women from their own choices.”
As the anti-choice movement shrugs off its pretense of Christian nonviolence and paternalism, what was once terrorist violence has become a campaign promise. But the ease with which this shift has been accepted, by supposedly “reasonable” conservatives, is far from shocking. The unspoken cost of criminalizing abortion has always been death and suffering for women and trans people; they die from complications of unhealthy pregnancies, they kill themselves trying to administer home abortions, or they simply endure the incredible physical and emotional strain of forced pregnancy and childbirth, which the United Nations considers to be a form of torture.
Even the most “compassionate” anti-choice advocate in the world is ultimately arguing to increase the total amount of female suffering in the world, and the most “civilized” anti-abortion discourse does little more than deodorize the stink of all that death.
In their seemingly effortless embrace of Williamson’s brutal fantasies, “reasonable” anti-choice conservatives are betraying the fundamental disregard for female and trans life at the heart of their philosophy. They may not all actively want to kill us, but they’re far more troubled by the silencing of the hangman than by the woman at the end of his rope.