Banning Abortion Encourages Criminalization – Whether ‘Pro-Life’ Leaders Admit It or Not
Shortly after a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to the public, the Louisiana House of Representatives held a hearing on an extreme piece of anti-abortion legislation: a total abortion ban that would label abortions as homicides and allow people who have abortions to be charged with murder. [1, 2]
It was introduced by State Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil City), a conservative who believes that people who have abortions should be treated the same as someone who murdered a newborn.  This legislation exposed a divide that has been brewing in the anti-abortion movement for years between abortion “incrementalists” and abortion “abolitionists” – a divide that will only become more pronounced in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to ignore decades of precedent and overturn Roe v. Wade. Incrementalists claim to believe abortion should be banned piece-by-piece with things such as 15-week bans and 48-hour waiting periods, gaining momentum over time for a total abortion ban. Abortion abolitionists want to bypass federal and state law to ban abortion immediately and, in many cases, openly admit to their desire to criminalize people who have abortions.
This bill drew immediate condemnation from incrementalist groups such as the National Right to Life Committee, which proceeded to release a letter in which they explicitly denounced the criminalization of people who have abortions, claiming it is “antithetical” to the goals of the anti-abortion movement.  This open letter was signed by a number of national anti-abortion organizations such as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and the March for Life. However, just as many national ‘pro-life’ organizations are conveniently missing – including Students for Life of America, whose representatives told Reproaction that they support criminal punishments for people who have abortions.
Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, who is best known for stating that police would be “smart” to racially profile her adopted, mixed race child, was not far behind.  Shortly after the harmful bill was denounced by Louisiana Right to Life, Johnson took to Twitter to voice her support for criminalization, stating that “when abortion is illegal, people must pay the penalty for killing their children.”
Students for Life and Abby Johnson joined other ‘pro-life’ leaders and organizations such as Live Action, the Heritage Foundation, and the Family Research Council in their notable absence from the letter. While these groups do not openly claim to support the criminalization of people who have abortions, their silence – as well as their harmful anti-abortion policies – will inevitably have the same result. Punishing people who have abortions is the logical end point of a movement that believes abortion is murder; while abortion incrementalists may be hiding behind a veneer of “respectability” by denouncing criminalization when it suits their strategic communication purposes, people are already being prosecuted for abortion, miscarriage, and pregnancy without their outcry, and no number of open letters about the hypothetical can change that.
Additionally, model legislation drafted by the National Right to Life Committee just a week before the fall of Roe puts cracks in their veneer of “respectability”: in addition to banning all abortions unless necessary to save the life of the pregnant person, this model legislation proposes criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly provides information about self-managed abortion or hosts a website containing information about self-managed abortion.  This blatant violation of free speech – which directly attacks the work of groups like Reproaction – will only serve to further the criminalization of people seeking abortions. This is especially true when you consider that many of those fighting for abortion access and sharing information about self-managed abortion have had abortions – myself included. Our lives and our livelihoods are under clear and direct attack by the same anti-abortion activists who claim to care about people seeking abortions; the same groups that have long cried “censorship” (despite their ability to bully tech companies into allowing the spread of disinformation) are now attempting to crack down on individual conversations to further their own regressive agenda.
While statements supporting the criminalization of those who have abortions from abortion abolitionists are disturbing, the truth is that even those who claim to be opposed to punishing people who have abortions are working towards a future where that punishment is increasingly common. Abortion bans encourage people who have abortions being criminalized – no matter how much ‘pro-life’ activists claim to “love them [people with capacity for pregnancy and children] both.”