Robert P. George’s Hypocrisy on Punishing Women Obtaining Abortions


Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, is a leading figure in the American ‘pro-life’ movement. I feel indebted to him for his being a professor at an élite university who publicly opposes abortion; that alone is, in these evil times, supposed to be a great feat. But he also signifies, to me, the moral failures of America’s neoconservative establishment.

Last year, he criticized Donald J. Trump for his words when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked (full transcript here),

— Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?
— The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
— For the woman.
— Yeah, there has to be some form.
— Ten cents? Ten years? What?
— I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.

Prof. George, writing in First Things, took Mr Trump’s support for punishing women as a sign that he was only a feigned pro-lifer:

Most pro-lifers and the entire mainstream pro-life movement oppose, and have always opposed, punishing women who seek abortions. Their goal is, and has been for as long as we’ve had a pro-life movement, restoring the historic laws of abortion (which were overturned in Roe v. Wade) that punished abortionists, and did not punish women.

In fact, Mr. Trump seems to have stumbled onto the best possible way of signaling to true pro-lifers that he is not one of them. He has inadvertantly [sic] embraced an idea that is falsely attributed to pro-life citizens by their opponents to weaken the pro-life cause by tarring pro-lifers as punitive, vindictive people who would send women, many of whom are desperate and frightened, and some of whom are acting under pressure or even coercion in seeking abortions, to prison.

Some called Mr Trump’s words a betrayal of the pro-life movement. But let’s consider Prof. George’s own position 20 years earlier. In 1996, also writing in First Things, Prof. George had considered the use of punishment to deter abortions:

One might wish to have lower penalties for abortion than for first-degree murder for a number of reasons. The existence of profound moral disagreement on the issue does not relieve us of the obligation to defend a basic human right; but it does suggest that the punishment for violations of that right should be no harsher than required to deter them. In addition, pro-life legislators have to take seriously the law’s function as a teaching instrument, particularly in a legalistic culture. That function is one reason anti-abortion laws are necessary. But the law imposed on our nation by judicial fiat in Roe v. Wade has, in effect, taught people for almost a quarter century either that they have a right to take human life or that abortion is not the taking of human life. In rectifying this wrong, the law should avoid harshly punishing those who have learned this false lesson all too well. Eventually it may be necessary and proper to stiffen penalties against abortionists; but it is legitimate to take into account that the moral and intellectual weaknesses that make people willing to consider or perform abortions are themselves in part a consequence of our laws and institutions.

After considering mitigations for abortionists, he clearly treated the punishment of women seeking abortions as an adiaphoron, something in itself indifferent and subject to judgements varying according to circumstance:

And there are still other considerations. Lower penalties could increase the effectiveness of anti-abortion laws by making juries more likely to convict. Women seeking abortions could be (and historically often were) exempted from penalties altogether, due both to mitigating circumstances – a great many women are really secondary victims of the abortion industry – and to the need to get testimony to help convict the abortionist.

Indeed, Prof. George said expressly that what punishment (if any) should lie upon women seeking abortions was a prudential judgement: ‘The only conclusion that does logically follow from pro-life premises is that governments have a duty generally to prohibit abortion and to enforce that prohibition to the best of their ability. Prudential judgments determine how that should be done.’

Prof. George’s saying, 20 years later, that Mr Trump was a fraud for saying there had to be some form of punishment for the woman getting an abortion, showed me what a fraud the contemporary ‘pro-life’ movement was. The movement’s hypocrisy on this matter, its willingness to shout its virtue in support of ‘life’ but its unwillingness to actually act on its convictions, only deepened my support for a candidate about whom I had been ambivalent months earlier. It also cut off what remained of my old inclinations to call myself a conservative and a ‘pro-lifer’. My moral views are traditional, and I oppose all abortions and fornication, but I am neither a conservative nor a pro-lifer.

Let those who love præferment seek credibility with liberals; they have lost their credibility with me. Conservatism is liberalism.


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