The Pro-Life Case for Murder

Donald Trump suggested punishing women who get abortions. The response exposed the incoherence of the pro-life right.

pro life.
Pro-life activists gather on Jan. 23, 2012, in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The Republican Party, its presidential candidates, and all major pro-life organizations claim to believe two things about abortion. First, “unborn children” deserve the same legal protection as born children. Second, a woman who hires someone to kill her unborn child should not be punished. From these two principles, a third proposition logically follows: A woman who hires someone to kill her born child shouldn’t be punished, either.

In the past five months, at least three women have been sentenced to death or to long prison terms for recruiting assassins to kill their children. If the GOP, its candidates, and the pro-life movement truly believe that the fetus is a person and that a woman who solicits the death of such a person is innocent, they should step forward and demand pardons for these three convicts.

On Nov. 18, 2015, Lisa Graham was sentenced to death in Alabama for recruiting a man to murder her 20-year-old daughter. According to evidence presented at trial, Graham blamed her daughter for destroying Graham’s marriage. In a recorded conversation, Graham had reminded her husband, “I told you that child would ruin my life, didn’t I?” The district attorney concluded that the daughter “was murdered for the convenience of her mother.”

On Dec. 2, 2015, Mae Taylor was sentenced to a 20-year prison term in Virginia for hiring a man to kill her adult son. Police said she did it because her son wasn’t helping to cover the cost of raising his child. In a confession, Taylor said she needed the money. During a recorded conversation, she had cited her son’s life insurance policy, which would help her make ends meet.

On March 18, a South African woman, Thandi Ndlovu, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for paying three men to kill her 25-year-old daughter. Ndlovu and her daughter had been living apart for many years because, as Ndlovu explained in court, the daughter had been born out of wedlock, and Ndlovu’s new husband, who was not the girl’s father, didn’t want to have the girl around.

Hiring someone to kill your adult son or daughter is different from hiring a doctor to terminate your pregnancy. But you can also see familiar themes. Sometimes a woman seeks an abortion because she thinks the child would break up her relationship, destroy her marriage, or ruin her life. Sometimes she worries that the father won’t support the child financially and that without his help, she can’t afford to raise the baby. Sometimes she’s in a new relationship with a man who doesn’t want some other guy’s kid in the picture, so she gets rid of it. Pro-lifers often describe these situations as abortions for “convenience.”

Still, pro-lifers say the woman must not be punished. Last week, after Donald Trump said “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions, he backtracked amid great hue and cry, stipulating that “the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” Ohio Gov. John Kasich agreed that penalties could be applied to “clinics or whatever, but you don’t lay this on women. It’s a tough enough situation for them.” Sen. Ted Cruz said “being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it’s also about the mother. … Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing women.” GOP Chairman Reince Priebus echoed those words: “Of course we don’t want women prosecuted.”

Pro-lifers offer several reasons for this lenience. First, they argue, women who solicit abortions do so out of desperation. They feel trapped by shame or financial troubles. Second, they’re driven to this desperation by male pressure or by society. Third, they’re not the ones who get paid for the killing. Fourth, they feel bad about it afterward. Fifth, the loss of the child they’ve sacrificed is punishment enough.

In recent days, anti-abortion activists have used these arguments to explain why Trump was wrong to suggest that women should be punished. “Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision,” said March for Life, which organizes the annual rally of pro-life organizations. “We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.” Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said many women turn to abortion as “an escape route from a life of unbearable shame, secrecy, and hardship.”

The Susan B. Anthony List, another pro-life group, said punishment should be reserved “for the abortionist who profits” from the transaction, not for the woman whose male companion “drove her to the desperation which impels her to the crime.” Charles Camosy, a pro-life scholar and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars, added that even in the absence of explicit male pressure, women should be spared punishment because they’re “coerced into having an abortion as a means of having social equality.” Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, said Trump was wrong because “women who have had abortions are already in a prison of guilt and shame.”

Women who take out contracts on their born children use the same arguments. Ndlovu told the court in South Africa that she loved her daughter and regretted having her killed. Taylor told the court in Virginia that she was sorry for soliciting her son’s murder and “didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” Taylor’s son, the only intended victim who survived in the three cases, asked prosecutors to drop charges against his mom. Graham blamed her daughter’s death on the man who pulled the trigger, suggesting it was his idea. Graham’s attorney argued on psychiatric grounds that Graham didn’t really know what she was doing. Graham’s son pleaded that if his mom got the death penalty, it would only add to his family’s grief.

Lisa Graham.
Lisa Graham.

Screenshot via Ledger-Enquirer

In all three cases, courts rejected these excuses. A court-ordered evaluation found Graham mentally competent, and the judge affirmed the jury’s recommendation that she be executed. The judge in South Africa said Ndlovu didn’t have to kill her child, adding: “Parents are required by divine grace to give the gift of life and to preserve it at all costs. Not to take it away at will.” The prosecutor in Virginia, refusing to drop charges against Taylor, cited the importance of “deterrence of others from committing similar offenses and upholding respect for life and the law.”

Isn’t that what pro-lifers profess? That the law must deter violence and uphold respect for life? That killing your child is never necessary? That life is a divine gift, and mothers have no right to take it away? If you really believe these things, shouldn’t women who pay to have their fetuses killed be punished, just like women who pay to have their born children killed?

If pro-lifers shrink from this conclusion—if they continue to make excuses for women who procure abortions while rejecting the same excuses for women who procure the deaths of their born children—then there’s only one logical explanation: They don’t really believe abortion is morally equivalent to killing a person. They sense that something about abortion— the fetus’s limited development, or its location inside the woman’s body, or the moral seriousness of weighing parenthood before you’ve actually taken it on —mitigates the gravity of the deed and the culpability of the procurer.

In their rebukes of Trump, you can see signs that pro-lifers share his doubt. Officially, the National Right to Life Committee asserts, “The baby living in her mother is as distinct and unique a separate person/human being as I am from you. This human being, as we all do, has the unalienable right to life and deserves full protection under the law.” But in its reply to Trump, the NRLC stressed that it “has long opposed the imposition of penalties on the woman on whom an abortion is attempted or performed.” The woman on whom an abortion is attempted. Apparently, the NRLC forgot that abortion, as an act of termination, is aimed at the supposedly distinct baby, not at the woman.

Kasich, Moore, and the Susan B. Anthony List committed the same slip, describing women, not their babies, as the victims who “receive” and “undergo” abortions. Never mind that the woman pays to have the baby killed and leaves the clinic alive. March for Life, which claims that its anti-abortion position “follows the basic homicide laws,” chastised Trump for prescribing punishment instead of “healing.” That’s how you talk when you know, somewhere in your brain, that abortion is a medical procedure, that the woman is the primary patient, and that the physical and moral relationship between her and her fetus is complicated.

But maybe I’m being unfair to Cruz, Kasich, NRLC, and other pro-lifers. Maybe they really believe abortion is murder. In that case, they’ll endorse clemency for Lisa Graham, Mae Taylor, and Thandi Ndlovu. Any day now.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 Republican primary.