Friday marked the 44th March for Life, an annual celebration of a much sought-after near future in which a huge number of women are imprisoned for attempting to obtain abortions. Of course, that’s not quite how the event bills itself: It’s outwardly focused on overturning Roe v. Wade and criminalizing abortion in every state. It is also devoted to ignoring the inevitable consequences of these aims. Take, for instance, this passage from Vice President Mike Pence’s unbearably maudlin, doublespeak-laden address:
When it comes to matters of the heart, there is nothing stronger than gentleness. I believe we will continue to win the hearts and minds of the rising generation. If our hearts first break for young mothers and their unborn children and if we each of us do all we can to meet them where they are with generosity, not judgment.
Pence would like to “meet” women who want an abortion “where they are”? Well, in his utopia, that would be in jail. Just ask Kenlissia Jones, whom Georgia charged with murder after she took an abortion pill she had purchased online. When the police discovered what Jones had done, they held her in jail without bond. Prosecutors threatened her with capital punishment, though they later dropped the charge when they decided the law probably didn’t allow it. If Roe is overturned, Georgia will be free to prosecute and imprison women like Jones.
Or ask Jennie Linn McCormack, an Idaho mother of three who gave herself an abortion. The police found out and arrested her at her home, threatening her with five years in prison. In Idaho, intentionally self-terminating a pregnancy is a felony. Ultimately, a federal court struck down this law—as a violation of Roe v. Wade. If Roe is overturned, Idaho can resume prosecuting women like McCormack who terminate their own pregnancies out of desperation. (The nearest abortion clinic to McCormack’s home was 138 miles away thanks to Idaho’s stringent clinic regulation.)
Or ask Purvi Patel, who bought abortion pills online then wound up in the hospital due to heavy bleeding. The hospital called the police, who arrested Patel; prosecutors charged her with feticide. A jury found her guilty, and she faced 20 years in prison before an appeals court reversed her conviction. All of this occurred in Indiana during Pence’s governorship.*
This is what it looks like when the law treats fetuses as people and abortion as murder. Anti-abortion activists universally crow that when Roe is overturned, they will punish abortion providers but not women who want abortions, whom they see as weak, infantile victims utterly lacking in agency. But there is no way—none—for the law to call abortion “murder” and not punish women who seek abortions or attempt to perform them. Donald Trump was following anti-abortion reasoning to its logical endpoint when he declared that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who terminate their pregnancies.
Before Roe, some states considered women who obtained abortion to be criminal co-conspirators, others considered them accomplices to murder, and some made it a crime for women simply to solicit abortions. All these statutes make perfect sense if abortion really constitutes the act of killing a human. Some of them are still on the books but cannot be enforced under Roe. As soon as that decision is overturned, however, these laws will become enforceable once again. And the experiences Jones, McCormack, Patel, and others—including Anna Yocca, a Tennessee woman who was arrested, imprisoned, and convicted for aborting her own fetus—teach us that they will be enforced.
Pence’s claim that women who wish to terminate their pregnancies must be treated with “generosity, not judgment,” then, is pure mendacity. Under his desired regime, these women would frequently receive “judgment” in the form of a criminal conviction. Until Pence explains why abortion is somehow a different kind of murder—one in which the murderer or accomplice can be legally exonerated as a “victim”—we must assume that he pines for the type of laws that already put women in jail. Behind the duplicitous platitudes, his is a ghastly “culture of life,” one that places a higher value on gestating fetuses than on the actual lives of women.
*Correction, Jan. 27, 2017: This post originally misstated that Patel was from Ohio.