Abortion, Prosecution, Ethics and the Law

One issue that often arises in pro-life discussions is whether or not the woman having an abortion should be charged with, and prosecuted for, a crime. It is an important question and one in which prolifers can differ on. Most have said no: our aim is to end abortion, not punish the women.

But it is nonetheless a cause of great controversy for some, and two recent events have re-ignited the debate. One was when Donald Trump said a few months ago that women should be prosecuted for having an abortion. But in typical fashion he flip-flopped on this and came up with a number of different positions in just a few days. So we can ignore him and his ever-changing views.

A second reason why this debate has arisen is because of a pro-life bill introduced into the Victorian Parliament by Dr Rachel Carling-Jenkins, the Infant Viability Bill 2015, which will soon be debated and voted on. Part Three has some prolifers concerned because it says, in part, this:

10 New section 65A inserted
After section 65 of the Crimes Act 1958 insert—
65A Late-term abortions
(1) A person commits an offence if the person performs a late-term abortion.
(2) A person who commits an offence against subsection (1) is liable to level 6 imprisonment (5 years maximum).
(3) A woman who consents to, or assists in, the performance of a late-term abortion on herself does not commit an offence against subsection (1).
(4) If—
(a) a person is found guilty of an offence against subsection (1); and
(b) the offence took place in a hospital; and
(c) the operator of the hospital failed to exercise due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence—

Trending: Is the Church Becoming Too Political?

Thus the abortion provider will be prosecuted and punished, but not the woman seeking an abortion. Some claim this is quite wrong, because abortion is the deliberate taking of an innocent human life, and the woman engaging in this is therefore guilty and should be punished as well.

That in a nutshell is what this particular debate is about in the prolife movement. So who is right here? People like Dr Carling-Jenkins, or her critics? This is a complex issue and one that needs to be carefully assessed and discussed. I will take the position which most prolifers have held to that says the doctor or abortionist should chiefly be targeted, but not as much the woman. As will be seen, this usually was the case when abortion was illegal.

A few caveats

Let me quickly deal with a few issues before moving on with this important discussion.

One, I have little time for the prolife purists. These are the ones who – to my mind – act in Pharisaical fashion, claiming we must have all or nothing – and they usually end up with nothing, and it is abortion business as usual. They dislike incrementalism, and say we must act to end all abortion fully and in one fell swoop, with no incremental steps.

But most prolifers are more realistic, and know that in a fallen world, while we of course all want and must aim for the complete elimination of abortion, often a step by step approach is the only real way to get there. Unlike the purists, it is always better to have, for a start, 30 percent or 40 percent of abortions stopped than to have none at all stopped. Ask any saved baby as a result of such incremental steps which position he or she would prefer! But I discuss this in more detail elsewhere:billmuehlenberg.com/2016/04/03/purists-politics-presidents-pharisees-dead-babies/

Two. I am not a theonomist. That is, I believe the Old Testament civil laws and the punishments that went with them were specifically meant for the ancient nation of Israel which was in covenant relationship with Yahweh. God has no such covenant relationship with modern secular nations.

While the moral laws are still binding, as most Christians agree, the civil laws (and certainly the ceremonial laws) are not. But how exactly a moral law such as ‘thou shall commit no murder’ is teased out in the modern state is a matter of social, philosophical and legal discussion and debate.

Three, I am writing here as both a Christian and a prolifer. These two influences should feed off each other. And I think they should more or less align with each other. However much of what will be said here can be said without direct appeal to Scripture or theological truths – but I believe they do not conflict with them either.

OK, with those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me look at two main issues: how things were when abortion was illegal, and how we might think about prosecuting women who have aborted their unborn babies.

Historical considerations

One way to get a handle on all this is to simply look at what happened to women when abortion was illegal. I will mainly focus on America here, but much of what I say applies to Australia and elsewhere. The short version is this: women were seldom, if ever, charged with a criminal offence when abortion was illegal.

Let me appeal to some experts here on this. American commentator Joe Carter had an important piece on this recently in which he looks at what happened in the US prior to Roe v. Wade:

We should first ask whether women who had abortions were treated as criminals prior to the Roe v. Wade decision. The short answer: No, they were not. Clarke Forsythe, president of Americans United for Life and one of the premier legal scholars on abortion laws in the United States, explains that before the Roe case, individual states not only targeted abortionists but also treated women as a victim of the abortionist:
“[T[he almost uniform state policy before Roe was that abortion laws targeted abortionists, not women. Abortion laws targeted those who performed abortion, not women. In fact, the states expressly treated women as the second “victim” of abortion; state courts expressly called the woman a second “victim.” Abortionists were the exclusive target of the law….
This political claim [that that women were jailed before Roe and would be jailed if Roe falls] is not an abstract question that is left to speculation—there is a long record of states treating women as the second victim of abortion in the law that can be found and read. To state the policy in legal terms, the states prosecuted the principal (the abortionist) and did not prosecute someone who might be considered an accomplice (the woman) in order to more effectively enforce the law against the principal. And that will most certainly be the state policy if the abortion issue is returned to the states.”


The original 2010 article by Forsythe, complete with 27 footnotes, can be found here:www.aul.org/2010/04/why-the-states-did-not-prosecute-women-for-abortion-before-roe-v-wade/

A week ago Robert P. George and Ramesh Ponnuru also penned a piece on this issue. In it they say:

Historically our anti-abortion laws did what the pro-life movement wants laws to do today: They recognized that unborn children are living human beings with the same right not to be killed that the rest of us possess; they gave effect to this recognition by prohibiting abortion; and they imposed no legal penalty on the mothers. The laws were right on all these points, and most pro-lifers are right on all of them today. That movement — the great human-rights movement of our time — has rightly sought to save babies, not punish women. And it has rightly understood that we can save unborn babies without threatening to punish their mothers.



So, it seems that for the most part women never were charged or punished for a crime when abortion was illegal. The emphasis was on curtailing abortion, not punishing the woman. In the light of the bill now before Parliament, which will include at least some criminal prosecution (for the abortion provider), what about the woman?

Should she be charged as well? And for what crime? And what would be the fitting penalty? As mentioned, perhaps most prolifers do not favour punishing the woman, As George and Ponnuru put it:

The topic came up in Roe v. Wade itself. In his opinion striking down nearly all state laws against abortion, Justice Harry Blackmun noted that “many states” did not provide for the prosecution of women for cooperating in abortions performed on them….
Most pro-lifers say they have no desire to punish women who seek abortions. All the major pro-life organizations share this view. The Republican platform, after declaring that unborn children have a right to life, affirms “our moral obligation to assist, rather than penalize, women challenged by an unplanned pregnancy.” Anti-abortion laws traditionally have shown no interest in punishing the women. On this point, at least, Blackmun was correct; indeed, he understated the truth. Most states had explicit exemptions for the women, and the rest had exemptions in practice.

Of course all this is not to say the woman is completely innocent and deserves no punishment. To some extent of course she was complicit in the abortion. Yes, many times coercion, duress and pressure from others leads a woman to do this. In that sense the woman is often a victim indeed. As Adam Peters writes on the Live Action website:

According to some studies, more than half of women who abort are pressured to do so, which makes sense; an abortion is a lot cheaper than child support. For some men, it’s also a good way to stay out of jail: time and again, child sex predators have used abortion to keep their crimes hidden and ongoing. What does that pressure look like? Personal blackmail and financial coercion are common features. Sometimes it involves more trauma–the blunt force kind.
It did for Roxanne Fernando; she was beaten to death by her boyfriend when she wouldn’t abort their child. Other women have been shot, stabbed, burned and smothered for the same reason, which helps explain why the CDC lists homicide as a leading cause of death during pregnancy.


Then there are some women who know exactly what an abortion is, and delight in having them. They shamelessly praise and promote abortion, and brag about how many they have had. These women are of course far guiltier, and some sort of punishment certainly seems just here.

Joe Carter put it this way:

Perhaps the most succinct explanation for why women who have abortions should not be charged with a criminal offenses comes from Frederica Mathewes-Green: “The goal of abortion laws is to stop abortion. And the person to stop is not the woman, who may have only one abortion in her life, but the doctor who thinks it a good idea to sit on a stool all day aborting babies. End the abortion business and you end abortion. The suggestion that it’s necessary to punish post-abortion women reveals a taste for vengeance.”
We should indeed be seeking justice rather than vengeance. And as Christians we must also recognize that sometimes in our fallen world the most we can hope for is proximate justice—an imperfect form of justice that recognizes that some justice is better than no justice at all. As Bethany Jenkins has said, “We pursue proximate justice in this age even as we recognize that true justice—the kind of justice that brings the dead back to life—will ultimately come in the age to come. Our longings for justice will only finally be fulfilled in the new heaven and the new earth.”
A consistent pro-life position can maintain that a woman who has an abortion may be morally culpable in the taking of an innocent life, and yet still recognize that in the interest of compassion and proximate justice (e.g., ensuring the conviction of abortionists) she should be treated solely as a second victim and not as a first accomplice.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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