The furor from both sides of the aisle concerning Donald Trump's call yesterday that "some form of punishment" be instituted for women who seek an abortion is a rare window onto one of the most distorted dynamics in American political discourse. This flap may do more damage to Trump among Republicans than all of his prior intemperate statements combined, stretching back to his first attack upon John McCain as a "loser" who let himself be captured by the Vietnamese. The reasons for this outrage are illuminating, both about the nature of Trump's candidacy and the politics of the larger discourse concerning abortion and reproductive rights.
On the surface, Republican anger is centered on the degree of ignorance and phony pandering revealed by Trump's words. Trump, a public figure who until very recently supported reproductive freedom, has obviously not done the least bit of study or reflection upon the principles and theory of the "pro-life" activism he now claims to espouse. His words betray a total ignorance of the current consensus among mainstream GOP politicians.
But if ignorance and pandering were enough to spark outrage, Donald Trump should have been in much worse shape long before now. Trump's evasions and vague ramblings have repeatedly revealed how little he knows about issues of foreign and domestic policy on which the GOP has been campaigning rigorously for decades. This case is unique because, speaking as the GOP frontrunner, Trump has done material damage to a rhetorical position that the Republican party had long taken for granted as safely established.
In calling for women to be punished, Trump has done what no "pro-life" advocate is ever supposed to do, and left the GOP once again exposed to accusations of waging a "war on women." But if Trump's discomfiture is on some level deserved, his crime is also arguably one of undue candor. The move to criminalize abortion inevitably raises the issue of enforcement, and the idea that enforcement could avoid punishing women, directly or indirectly, is absurd.
This is made plain by the strained retraction issued by Trump's campaign short hours after his comments broke. Women seeking abortion would not be punished in a Trump administration, we were told, only their doctors, because a woman in such an instance is a "victim." This is in line with the current position of "pro-life" activism, but is incongruous from a campaign that has repeatedly decried "political correctness."
What but political correctness (and latent sexism) could consign half of the population to "victimhood" if they are complicit in an act deemed the moral equivalent of murder? This is to deny the agency and autonomy of women, to insist that they need special protection, not only from their doctors, but from themselves. It is especially clear in the case of a woman who, as in the dark days of caustic chemicals and wire hangers, attempted to administer an abortion to herself. Trump (and "pro-life" activists in general) would presumably also deem such a woman a victim. But this makes the "pro-life" position strangely identical to that of the defenders of reproductive freedom. Moreover, if she is a victim, then by driving her to self-mutilation instead of the care of a doctor the "pro-life" legal regime would punish her as surely as if it had clapped her in jail.
These types of logical and rhetorical problems are rarely brought to the surface by our national discourse on reproductive rights, because partisans on both sides of the issue are content to cleave closely to scripted talking points and avoid all discussion of the principles underpinning the issue. Democrats and Republicans assume that the degree of support for either position is "baked in" to the political demography, thus there is never any need to educate or persuade. In this respect, Donald Trump has done us a favor by inducing a moment of rare probity into a routinely rote and anemic discourse. It would be wonderful if the debate of these issues could remain as robust through the fall, but as Trump's opponents in both parties exhaust the political points that can be scored from this gaffe, the conversation will most likely revert to being as insipid as usual.