The Atlantic recently announced a roster of four columnists for its new Ideas section, intended to gather “a diverse range of voices” who will “shape the public conversation.” One of those new hires, anti-Trump conservative Kevin Williamson, immediately attracted a fierce backlash. Williamson has spent the last 10 years at the National Review, where he called trans actress Laverne Cox “an effigy of a woman,” said struggling towns populated by poor whites “deserve to die,” and referred to a black child as a “primate.” But the past statement that attracted the most ire from critics was a comment he made on Twitter in 2014: that women who undergo abortion should be hanged.
“I believe abortion should be treated like any other premeditated homicide,” Williamson elaborated. “I’m torn on capital punishment generally; but treating abortion as homicide means what it means.” The comments made the outrage rounds at the time—Salon produced a quiz asking if readers could tell the difference between Williamson and a 4chan troll—and were resurrected with Williamson’s elevation to the august Atlantic. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens defended Williamson by writing, “for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet.” It turns out it was a series of tweets, and also a fairly in-depth audio conversation: On Wednesday, Media Matters unearthed a clip in which Williamson made the same argument on his National Review podcast in 2014. By Thursday, the Atlantic announced it would not hire Williamson after all. “The language he used in this podcast—and in my conversations with him in recent days—made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views,” editor Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in an email to his staff.
Williamson’s breezy case for hanging nearly one-quarter of American women had drawn the strongest rebukes from pro-choice advocates. But there’s a case to be made that pro-choice readers should have welcomed this kind of rhetoric getting aired in public. It would have been clarifying to see a pro-life writer follow his movement’s rhetoric to its logical endpoint: If abortion is murder, tens of millions of American women are murderers.
Williamson’s punitive instinct is a distinct break from contemporary anti-abortion orthodoxy, which maintains that women are victims of a duplicitous abortion “industry.” Activists promote post-abortion counseling, recovery retreats, and diagnoses of “post-abortion syndrome.” Most demonstrators outside abortion clinics now emphasize “sidewalk counseling” over gory posters. In this framework, women do not deserve judgment but sympathy; banning abortion, in turn, gets framed as an act of support, even feminism.
Pro-life activists also argue that many abortions are coerced; they estimate that anywhere from “more than one in three” to perhaps “as much as 64 percent” of women are forced to get abortions they do not want. While decision-making is complex, and plenty of women pursue abortions from within unhealthy relationships, the overwhelming majority of women who have recently had abortions say it was the right decision. As Williamson might put it, they are “remorseless.”
The mainstream pro-life movement speaks nearly in unison on the idea that women should not be prosecuted. When then-candidate Donald Trump mused to Chris Matthews in 2016 that women who have abortions should receive “some form of punishment,” the reaction from pro-life activists was swift. “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion,” the president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund told the New York Times. “We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.” Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, said Trump’s comment proved “He doesn’t understand pro-life people or the life issue.”
But Trump may have understood “life” better than many of its advocates do. To claim that women who procure abortions are merely victims is infantilizing, to put it bluntly. Women know exactly what they are doing when they procure an abortion: They are ending a pregnancy because they do not want to have a baby. To pretend they are somehow duped into it by predatory clinics or deceitful doctors is disingenuous. It is naturally more comfortable for pro-life activists to treat women with compassion than blame. It makes the movement more appealing to outsiders, and it’s an easier public stance for individual activists, many of whom are women themselves. The idea that millions of mothers have murdered their own children would be profoundly disruptive to activist strategies, to the legal system, and to pro-lifers’ ideas about nurturing femininity.
Perverse credit to Williams, then, for confronting the implications of abortion-as-murder forthrightly. “I do indeed know women who have had abortions,” Williamson replied to a feminist writer who challenged him in 2014. “If I didn’t think they were people, they’d have no moral culpability.” It’s of a piece with his defense for hanging as the means of execution. “If the state is going to do violence, let’s make it violence,” he said on his podcast in 2014. “Let’s not pretend like we’re doing something else.”
It’s useful for pro-choice readers to see the anti-choice argument presented in such grim, unvarnished terms. At least this way they can engage more honestly with their ideological opponents; it’s harder to do this when the pro-life movement is dressed up in the language of empathy and feminism. The question of whether arguments like Williamson’s ought to be printed in the pages of a publication like the Atlantic is quite a different matter, of course. Atlantic writers have had no trouble discussing Williamson’s ideas in the past, without the magazine paying him to produce those ideas. Formally welcoming Williamson into the fold implied that his arguments fall within a certain spectrum of reasonableness, which can be expected to give those arguments greater currency in the wider world. Just this week, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Idaho said that because abortion is murder, the state should punish women who procure them. For now, at least, those arguments remain beyond the pale of mainstream discourse.