It’s not just fringe candidates and pundits advocating for killing women who have abortions. It’s now a GOP platform. And Ohio is leading the way.
Hanging? Lethal injection? Maybe a good old-fashioned stoning? It’s 2018 and yes, we are deep in a debate not on whether abortion is a legal, constitutionally guaranteed right (it is), but over exactly how a person should be punished if the GOP ever successfully manages to strip that right away.
The Right will pretend that it is only their fringe who are talking about the death penalty for those who end a pregnancy. The mainstream, they claim, doesn’t believe this—at least not the part about punishing the women themselves. They’ll point to their very public rebuke of then-candidate Donald Trump, how they very thoroughly and methodically sat him down and chastised him when he suggested women should be jailed if they obtain an abortion if the procedure is ever made illegal. “We don’t say that,” they gently corrected him. “We punish doctors, not women. Women who want abortions are victims—of predatory doctors, coercive family and unsupportive society. We don’t punish them, they don’t know any better.”
But Trump was confused for a reason. The “abortion is murder and someone must die for it” wing of the movement was always there and always strong, it just never felt comfortable enough to be so out in the open. It was at the heart of the “Defensive Action Statement” signed by 33 abortion opponents in the 1990s arguing that it should be considered justified to kill an abortion provider “for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children.” It resurged publicly in South Dakota in 2011 when a “justifiable homicide” bill allegedly meant to allow family members to kill an alleged attacker to defend a pregnant person from violence was alarmingly vague enough to potentially allow abortion opponents to murder those who provide abortions, too. And in case that looked like an accident, Nebraska introduced its own version soon after, expanding those that it covered to be any person who was “defending” the fetus itself.
Candidates ran on platforms of ignoring state and federal laws and stating they would “kill” in order to stop legal abortions. The extremist group Abolish Human Abortion’s own platform argues that after “abortion abolition” doctors should “immediately” receive the death penalty for terminating a pregnancy, whereas for the pregnant person, “we should slowly ramp up the severity of the penalties, such that a woman who seeks out an abortion one week after abolition would be punished less severely than a woman who seeks out an abortion 20 years afterwards.”
“This is just the fringe, this isn’t the majority,” says the pro-life movement. But how is this still considered fringe when state after state is now introducing, and in some cases even passing, “abortion is murder” bills in direct defiance of the U.S. Constitution? Oklahoma’s 2014 attempt to define abortion as a felony and strip the medical license of any provider made it through both chambers of the State Legislature and was only stopped from becoming law by a veto from Republican Governor Mary Fallin. Then, in 2017, the state house passed a resolution declaring abortion “murder” and demanding legislators “stop the murder of innocent unborn children by abortion.”
While the Oklahoma bill offered no jail time and the resolution has no legal weight, other states have thrown their hat into the ring with more punitive moves. Texas tried to make abortion a criminal offense in 2017, with bill sponsor Tony Tinderholt saying jail time for women would make them “more personally responsible,” and currently a Florida initiative to designate abortion (and some birth control) as first-degree murder has been proposed for the 2018 election ballot. Meanwhile, nearly two dozen Ohio state representatives signed onto a bill that, if passed, could potentially put a pregnant person obtaining an abortion in jail for the rest of their life—or worse.
According to the New York Times, “One of the Republican co-sponsors of the legislation, State Representative Ron Hood, said it would be up to prosecutors to decide whether to charge a woman or a doctor, and what those charges would be. But they could be severe. Under the bill, an ‘unborn human’ would be considered a person under state criminal homicide statutes. Thus, a prosecutor could decide to charge a woman who ended a pregnancy with murder. In Ohio, murder is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.”
Death penalty for abortion as an option isn’t fringe anymore, it’s alarmingly mainstream. Idaho Lieutenant Governor candidate and State legislator Bob Nonini told a candidate forum that if abortion were illegal, the death penalty should be included as a possibility since more women would be deterred then. This comes just a few weeks after another State legislator, Dan Foreman, yelled “Abortion is murder” at constituents who came to speak to him about defunding Planned Parenthood. Foreman, too, plans to introduce an “Abortion is murder” bill in the Senate.
Are Foreman and Nonini extremists? Maybe. But that’s just because the Republican Party itself has moved so far right that extremists are now their majority. Nonini especially has been in State office for over a decade, receiving accolades from Idaho Chooses Life and the Idaho GOP. Foreman is in his first term, riding the wave of far-right social-conservative power that came into office on the coat tails of Donald Trump. What Idaho shows us is that those who believe abortion is murder and that the death penalty is a justifiable deterrent that must be on the table—for both provider and patient—are gaining in power and that what was once fringe mentality is undeniably a mainstream political position.
The only difference? Now politicians are emboldened enough to discuss it in public, knowing it is no longer a threat to their political careers. The idea has been mainstreamed in part due to conservative writers like Kevin Williamson—who once insisted that women who have abortions should be potentially hanged for their decision—a man hired as a staff columnist at The Atlantic before public outcry forced the prestigious outlet fired him after they heard his hate speech during a podcast. It’s no longer shocking because we’ve watched Vice-President Mike Pence spend years keeping Purvi Patel behind bars for homicide after allegedly inducing her own abortion. It’s acceptable because even the President of the United States himself isn’t completely sure if the “pro-life” talking point is to jail the doctor, the pregnant person, or both.
And Ohio may well be the next state to prove that point. “Anti-choice leaders have long claimed that they don’t want to punish women who seek abortion care, but that was a lie,” Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio told DAME. “Their goal has always been to force women to continue pregnancies against their will by any means necessary. They are finally admitting that they are willing to prosecute women and impose the death penalty on them if they have an abortion.”
In 2015, the lack of an exception for rape victims in the federal 20-week abortion ban was considered so extreme that it stopped the bill from even making it out of the House of Representatives. It took less than three years for abortion bills to default to not including any rape exceptions at all.
Today, the right is claiming those who are arguing for life in prison and the death penalty for those getting an abortion are just the extreme fringe and no one will ever jail the woman. I wonder what will they be saying just three years down the road?
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
Become a member at DAME today to help us support our independent, fearless reporting so we can continue to shine a light on the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. Every dollar we receive from readers goes directly into funding our journalism. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps us continue to cover the policies, social issues, and cultural trends that matter, bringing the diversity of thought so needed in these times.