How strange it is that at the very moment when the left is routing the right in the culture war, the battle over abortion seems more polarized than ever.
On one side, supporters of abortion rights increasingly (and unconvincingly) deny that having an abortion is a moral issue at all — that terminating a pregnancy is nothing to be ashamed of, and maybe even something to be proud of.
And on the other side, there is, well, Kevin D. Williamson. A writer for National Review, Williamson likes to be the guy who will brashly express the crudest (and sometimes cruelest) version of his own team's deepest ideological commitments. Want an up-is-down revisionist take on American history that portrays the Republican Party as a far-greater champion of civil rights than the Democrats? Williamson's your man. Looking for someone to mock a transgendered person pictured on the cover of Time magazine? Williamson will do it with unapologetic relish.
But none of that compares to what we got from Williamson earlier this week, when he took to Twitter to declare that he thinks women who have had abortions deserve to be executed for their actions. And not just executed in any old way, or by lethal injection, which is the standard in the 32 states that permit the death penalty. No, Williamson thinks women who have had abortions — along with the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff involved in the procedure — deserve to face death by hanging.
Now, the hanging bit is an almost perfect example of intentionally provocative rhetoric. (That's my preferred euphemism for "trolling.") Note how it adds an extra frisson of outrageousness to the proposal of capital punishment, given the way hanging has historically been deployed — as a uniquely public form of execution, used by governments as well as extrajudicial gangs of private citizens to inspire acute fear and intimidation. (Williamson might have just gone ahead and advocated beheadings, though of course, as another National Review author has recently argued, only a "purely evil" political organization could favor anything like that.)
But let's leave the method of punishment aside. Supporters of abortion rights were driven to sputtering indignation by Williamson's proposal less by the reference to hanging than by his underlying contention that abortion be treated as a capital crime at all.
Yet doesn't that status follow directly from the key assumption of anti-abortion activists?
After all, those who oppose abortion rights claim that the procedure amounts to the infliction of lethal violence against an innocent human being. If they truly believe that, then of course they also believe it should be prosecuted and punished like any other act of homicide. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the Williamson controversy may be that his remarks surprised anyone at all.
Forty-one years after Roe v. Wade, and several decades into a culture war waged on the right by a passionate, highly organized anti-abortion movement, our debates have become hopelessly abstract, focusing almost entirely on whether this or that specific politician supports the 1973 decision instead of thinking through, in concrete terms, what America would look like if opponents of abortion got their way.
Repealing abortion rights at the federal level would just be the first step. It would be followed by an effort to outlaw abortion on a state-by-state basis. Then those involved in the illegal procedure would have to be prosecuted and punished. At the outer fringes of the possible, anti-abortion activists hope to see a Personhood Amendment protecting fetal life added to the Constitution, or perhaps the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment explicitly expanded to include the unborn.
While Republican presidential candidates are regularly asked if they endorse their party's platform in favor of repealing Roe, they are only rarely confronted with a follow-up question about whether they also believe that women who procure abortions and the medical professionals who provide them should be prosecuted and punished for murder — perhaps even for capital murder.
Since one typically comes to favor outlawing abortion only because of a belief in its homicidal character, it's hard to see how an opponent of abortion rights could do anything other than affirm a desire to see the murderers and their accessories brought to justice. It seems the only alternative would be to look hopelessly soft on crime.
No doubt some politicians, flinching before the electoral abyss, would try to stake out an alternative position, perhaps like the one that prevailed during the Middle Ages, when women who terminated their pregnancies were usually let off while the midwives who performed the procedure were sometimes punished.
But of course, medieval authorities were far less committed than today's abortion opponents to the proposition that abortion is the violent termination of a life possessing as much dignity and worth as an autonomous person outside the womb. Once that premise is granted, leniency toward the woman makes no sense. It's like saying that a person who hires a contract killer should get off scot-free.
If abortion really is murder, then everyone involved deserves to be punished, and punished severely — just as Kevin Williamson says.
If, on the other hand, such punishment sounds wildly, almost absurdly disproportionate, then maybe it's a sign that abortion really isn't murder after all.