GOP frontrunner Donald Trump made waves on Wednesday afternoon when he said that, if anti-choice lawmakers succeed in their goal of outlawing abortion, there should be “some form of punishment” for women who end a pregnancy.
Abortion opponents quickly moved to distance themselves from Trump’s comments, claiming that he doesn’t represent the true pro-life position. “No pro-life American advocates punishment for abortion,” said March For Life Education, the group that convenes the annual anti-abortion protest on the National Mall. “We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion,” added the right-wing Susan B. Anthony List.
Anti-abortion individuals have a long history of shying away from talking about what should happen to women who have abortions in a society where abortion is a crime. They typically argue that since the women who have abortions are victims, rather than criminals, the goal isn’t necessarily to put them in jail.
But punishment is the logical end point of the stance that abortion should be illegal. There’s plenty of evidence that, when a medical procedure carries criminal penalties, some people invariably end up behind bars.
Here in the United States, where a web of complex restrictions currently regulate abortion, some vulnerable women have faced punishment for the way their pregnancies ended.
Multiple U.S. women -- with few options to get themselves to one of their state's dwindling legal clinics -- have been arrested for illegal abortions after they bought abortion-inducing medication online. And thanks to the growing number of laws aimed at protecting “fetal rights,” other women have been punished for doing activities that allegedly harmed their pregnancies. Americans have been charged with murder for allegedly seeking to harm their fetuses by attempting suicide, using illicit drugs, or even falling down the stairs.
Around the world, there are many women sitting in prison for the crime of abortion.
In El Salvador, for example, women live under one of the harshest abortion bans in the world and are routinely prosecuted for illegally ending a pregnancy. Some women are serving decades behind bars for having a miscarriage that authorities suspect they did something to induce.
In Ecuador, if women are convicted of ending a pregnancy, they can face up to five years in prison. And the evidence can be pretty thin. In fact, a woman can be sentenced to up to two years behind bars based solely on the testimony of a medical professional who says she had an abortion.
In Guanajuato, a conservative state in Mexico that completely criminalizes abortion, dozens of women have been put on trial for the crime of ending a pregnancy. Some of them have been sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. At least 17 women are serving time there even though there isn't any evidence their pregnancies ended from unnatural causes.
On Wednesday, GOP presidential candidates sought to quickly pivot away from the idea of punishing women themselves. Trump tried to walk back his statements by suggesting that punishment should be left to the states to decide. And a spokesperson for Sen. Ted Cruz (R) said that Cruz favors punishing the doctors who perform doctors; one of the anti-abortion activists who's endorsed Cruz for president has actually called for putting those doctors to death.