Abortion and free speech: The Atlantic ’s firing of Williamson
“Well, that didn’t take very long,” said Warren Henry in TheFederalist.com. Two weeks after hiring conservative columnist Kevin Williamson to join The Atlantic, the venerable, left-leaning journal of culture and politics, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg fired the pro-life writer for “callous and violent” comments he’s made about abortion. In a 2014 tweet, Williamson argued that abortion is murder and should be treated “like a regular homicide”—punishable by the death penalty, preferably by “hanging.” When he first hired the talented and provocative Williamson, Goldberg dismissed that tweet as a single bad moment until he discovered the writer had repeated the hanging comment in a podcast. Suddenly, Williamson’s views became “contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate,” and Williamson was out of a job. This is “more than mere inside-baseball media drama,” said David French in NationalReview.com. “The cowardly firing of Kevin Williamson” came after an online mob of outraged leftists demanded that Goldberg purge this “unacceptable” voice from his roster of highly opinionated columnists. Liberals like to talk of tolerance and inclusion, but they continue their “steady, inexorable division of America into the tolerable and the intolerable.”
“This is all nonsense,” said Osita Nwanevu in Slate.com. Williamson wasn’t fired for being pro-life—a position shared by many conservative writers at “centrist and center-left publications.” He was fired because he expressed enthusiasm for the notion that the 1 in 4 American women who’ve had an abortion deserve to die. Is it really “liberal bias” to feel that this sentiment has no place in a magazine dedicated to civil, reasoned discourse? The Atlantic knew it was hiring a pro-life conservative, said Kirsten Powers in USA Today. What got Williamson rightly fired were his “callous and violent” fantasies about making women suffer. Turning him into “a free speech martyr” is an affront to “the cause of intellectual diversity and free speech.”
Williamson’s “comments were shocking,” said Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post, “but at least he’s intellectually honest.” Pro-lifers usually prefer “to avoid the implications of their asserted conviction that life begins at conception.” If that is true, then there can be no exceptions even for rape and incest, and pregnant women who get abortions must be charged with crimes. What mother would be excused as “a hapless victim” of a selfish, secular society if she murdered her 4-year-old? Williamson has a personal reason for admitting what many pro-lifers “would rather keep quiet,” said Ed Kilgore in NYMag.com. He himself was given up for adoption by an unmarried teenage mother in Texas, the year before the Supreme Court legalized abortion. In other countries where abortion is illegal, women who get abortions are convicted and jailed—and the same would happen if abortion became illegal in the U.S.
That’s not true, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Most pro-lifers have sufficient moral reasoning to see both that a fetus is a human being and that “pregnancy is unique in ways that mitigate culpability and make it unwise to treat abortion as a normal homicide.” We support prosecuting doctors who would provide illegal abortions, not women. Since Williamson is such an “extremist” on this issue, it’s just as well that he “won’t be carrying the pro-life flag at The Atlantic.” But if his views are “callous and violent,” how to characterize the “respectable reproductive rights regime” that blithely justifies “lethal violence against the most vulnerable of human bodies every single day”?