Just when you thought Donald Trump couldn’t say anything more shocking, he suggested that women who get abortions should be punished.
On MSNBC, he said abortion must be banned, and then “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who manage to get abortions.
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He declined to say what the punishment should be, dodging a question about whether it should be “10 years” in prison or something milder. But his comment raised the possibility of following the lead of countries like El Salvador, where women can be dragged off from a hospital to prison for getting an abortion. Indeed, rights groups say that women were wrongly imprisoned in El Salvador simply for having miscarriages.
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Trump doesn’t seem to have thought deeply about the issue — what a surprise! — and he departed from the mainstream anti-abortion position of targeting not women but abortion providers. As one person said on Twitter: “He’s a walking cartoon parody of every leftist accusation against Republicans.”
After the TV interview was over and the backlash had begun, Trump tried to back off his comment, saying in a statement, “The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”
Who knows where that leaves us?
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One lesson is that Trump is an uninformed opportunist, but the episode does highlight two basic problems for the anti-abortion movement.
First, as long as the focus is on the fetus or on the claim of “protecting women,” many in the public are sympathetic to the anti-abortion view. The moment the focus shifts to criminalizing women, sympathy shifts.
Anti-abortion activists have generally taken a savvy approach by concentrating on extreme situations — such as late-term so-called partial-birth abortions — and on legislating obstacles that in practice reduce access.
Many Americans are ambivalent on abortion. But Trump has now turned the attention back from the fetus to the woman. And remember that 3 in 10 American women get an abortion at some point in their lives.
Second, the data suggest that one of the most effective ways to reduce the number of abortions would be to increase the availability of publicly funded family planning. In 2013, publicly funded family planning prevented 2 million unintended pregnancies, including almost 700,000 abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
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Yet Republicans try to defund Title X, the traditional family planning program in the United States. After inflation, its funding level is less than one-third what it was in 1980.
In truth, Trump’s stance — whatever it is — would matter only if a more conservative Supreme Court revisited Roe v. Wade and some states were allowed to ban abortion altogether.
Moreover, medical abortion, achieved by taking two kinds of pills, is gaining ground on surgical abortion and is much more difficult to stop. In particular, one of the pills, misoprostol, is very cheap, has other uses and is at least 80 percent effective on its own in inducing an abortion early in pregnancy. The upshot is that early abortions will be increasingly difficult to prevent.
Trump’s comments about punishing women are worth pondering because they reflect the logical conclusion of equating a fetus with any other human being.
This penalizing approach has been tried before and failed. A dozen years ago, I went to Portugal to cover such an effort. The police staked out women’s health clinics, looking to arrest women who appeared likely to have just had abortions based on being pale or seeming upset. Some 48 women and a 16-year-old girl were prosecuted, along with accomplices such as husbands, boyfriends, parents and even a taxi driver who drove a woman to a clinic.
The women were humiliated at trial, their most intimate gynecological history revealed to the public. And the public was revolted. The women were all acquitted, and the public turned decisively in favor of abortion rights, by a majority of 79 to 14 percent.
The episode left many Portuguese both anti-abortion and pro-choice. They were distressed by abortion, especially late in pregnancies, but they were aghast at the idea of prosecuting young women for making wrenching personal choices. I think many Americans feel the same way.
So maybe Trump, in his flip-flopping wavering about women’s issues, can at least remind us of a larger truth. Whatever one thinks of abortion, criminalizing it would be worse.
Follow Mr. Kristof on Twitter @NickKristof.