Did Trump get the pro-life position wrong? Or just express it too bluntly?
Fact-checkers tell us that Donald Trump makes mistakes all the time.  But Wednesday something unusual happened: He made a mistake he had to back away from.
You can hardly blame him, because his interviewer (Chris Matthews) cheated: He asked follow-up questions and kept badgering for an answer. (Who knew journalists could do that?) After two minutes of dancing back and forth on the topic, Trump let Matthews nail him down:
MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion? Yes or no, as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman.
TRUMP: Yeah. There has to be some form.
That statement set off not just feminists, but the anti-abortion folks Trump was trying to appeal to. So Trump had to retreat, ultimately settling on the approved pro-life response: After abortion becomes illegal, doctors should be punished, not women. (He also claimed that MSNBC created the confusion about his views by editing his exchange with Matthews. That should raise his pants-on-fire-lie numbers even higher: The interview was pre-recorded, but aired in its entirety.)
But Trump’s about-face just started a new and even more interesting debate: What kind of mistake did Trump make? Did he get the pro-life position wrong? Or did he spill the beans by stating that position bluntly, without the usual flowery misdirection?
After all, most of Trump’s apparent gaffes have been of the second type: He says what his followers are really thinking, without the caveats and nuanced word choices that make those positions defensible in front of the educated elite. Is that what happened here?
The case for spilling the beans. The essence of the pro-life position is that as soon as sperm meets ovum, you have a fully ensouled human being, with all the God-given rights anybody else has.  The natural consequence of this belief is that any abortion, at any stage of a pregnancy, is murder.
Pro-lifers use the word murder in its literal sense, intending nothing metaphoric or hyperbolic. That’s why they so often equate the millions of abortions that have happened since Roe v Wade with the Holocaust.
If you follow where that logic naturally goes, then everybody connected with an abortion is conspiring to commit murder. After all, any mother who paid a man to stick a knife through her baby’s heart would be guilty of murder, so if there is no moral distinction between a baby and a fetus (an “unborn child” or “pre-born baby” in pro-life jargon), any woman who pays a doctor to end her pregnancy must also be a murderer. Why should she go unpunished?
And in fact, in states where pro-lifers have managed to put restrictions on abortion, women do get punished:
Multiple U.S. women — with few options to get themselves to one of their state’s dwindling legal clinics — have been arrested for illegal abortions after they bought abortion-inducing medication online. And thanks to the growing number of laws aimed at protecting “fetal rights,” other women have been punished for doing activities that allegedly harmed their pregnancies. Americans have been charged with murder for allegedly seeking to harm their fetuses by attempting suicide, using illicit drugs, or even falling down the stairs.
A woman in Indiana has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for “feticide”. And if pro-life activists are trying to help her or change the law so that no other women get punished, they’re being awfully quiet about it. As far as that goes, Indiana has a pro-life governor who could commute her sentence at will, if he thought that punishing her was unjust.
But no matter how logically it follows from pro-life assumptions, it seems harsh and cruel to punish women who didn’t want to get pregnant and are just trying to get their old lives back. Nobody likes to think of themselves as harsh and cruel, and besides, it’s bad politics. So pro-lifers deny that’s where they’re headed, even though all the evidence says they’re really headed there.
The counter-argument. When stating a position I disagree with, there’s always a danger that I’ll make a straw man out of it, so I’ll let some prominent pro-lifers state it themselves at length. Here’s how Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List put it on NPR’s Morning Edition:
[T]he pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.
The real earliest roots of feminism and the women’s movement really embraced the idea that her innermost soul, in Susan B. Anthony’s words, recoil from the dreadful deed, but thrice guilty is the one who drove her to the deed. And who is that? It’s the abortionist. And that who – is who is the one to be punished when there’s a law against abortion.
Steven Ertelt of LifeNews.com makes a similar point:
the pro-life movement has historically opposed punishing women who have abortions — instead focusing on holding abortion practitioners criminally accountable for the unborn children they kill in abortions.
That pro-woman mentality is partly due to the understand[ing] that the abortion industry preys on women — selling them abortions by lying to them about the humanity of their unborn children and the destructive effects abortion will have.
Charles Camosy, author of Beyond the Abortion Wars, wrote an op-ed for The New York Daily News:
Isn’t pro-lifers’ refusal to follow the logic of their position a dishonest political game — one played because pro-lifers know that, as Trump just learned, the logically consistent position alienates virtually everyone?
That might be true if women have an uncoerced choice to have an abortion. But as I argue in some detail in my book “Beyond the Abortion Wars,” that’s not how our culture works.
Broadly legal abortion is the product of privileged men.
… Unsurprisingly, the all-male Roe court made women “free” to act like men: to imagine themselves as able to live sexual, reproductive, economic, professional lives as men do. Women’s equality was not about getting equal pay for equal work. Not about getting mandatory family leave and affordable child care. Not about passing strict anti-discrimination laws in hiring practices.
What was essential for social equality, according to those responsible for our abortion laws, was that women are able to end their pregnancies when they are a burden on their economic and social interests. But being pregnant and having a child is often so burdensome precisely because our social structures have been designed by and for people who cannot get pregnant. Notice how, in this context, our abortion laws end up serving the interests of men and coercing the so-called “choice” of women.
Someone who is coerced into having an abortion as a means of having social equality should not be put in jail. Women, like their prenatal children, are victims of our horrific abortion policy. Instead, physicians who profit from the violence of abortion ought to be punished.
Ad hoc. Whenever I listen to anti-abortion rhetoric, I’m always struck by the ad hoc reasoning. Points are made that would seem to have implications for lots of other issues, but somehow those concerns vanish as soon as the topic shifts away from abortion.
The easiest place to start is with the Susan B. Anthony quote. It sounds great, doesn’t it? The head of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony list quoting Anthony herself, as if she were carrying forward the great woman’s legacy. Unfortunately, there’s no historical record of Anthony ever saying it, and precious little to indicate that Anthony had a position on abortion at all. Even if the quote were legitimate, isn’t it obvious that “the one who drove her to the deed” is not the abortionist, but the man who got her pregnant? (Odd that nobody ever talks about punishing him.)
Dannenfelser and Ertelt seem to be imagining a world in which doctors run some sort of boiler-room operation that cold-calls pregnant women and tries to sell them abortions. Or maybe abortionists hang around outside gynecologists’ offices (the way anti-abortion activists sometimes surround abortion clinics) trying to talk women out of their firm intention to give birth.
Reality is quite different: There is a strong demand for abortion services and always has been, back to the days when young women would come to the local potion-maker or hedge-witch looking for a miscarriage-inducing herb or tea. It is a fact of life that not every woman who gets pregnant wants to raise children at this point in her life, or maybe ever.  And even a family that is raising children already doesn’t necessary want to have more of them.
I can see the woman as a pure victim in some cases (say when a high school girl gets pregnant by one of her teachers, who then arranges the abortion for her and talks her into it), but in many cases an abortion is the result of a mature woman deciding what she wants to do with her life — a possibility that pro-life activists seem to ignore entirely.
Many, like Ertelt, claim she is likely to regret this decision. (An actual survey says 95% don’t.) But where else in our lives do conservatives argue that the government should stop us from making regrettable choices, or punish the people who help us carry them out? Quite the opposite: a basic tenet of conservative philosophy is that people should be free to make their own mistakes … in every case but this one.
Camosy’s argument is even more ad hoc. If the majority of pro-lifers felt this way, the political party where they have so much influence would be working on the issues he accuses the Roe v Wade court of ignoring: “equal pay for equal work … mandatory family leave and affordable child care … strict anti-discrimination laws in hiring practices.” In fact the exact opposite is true, and the Republican opposition to these proposals is not even controversial within the party. As soon as the topic shifts away from abortion, Republican concern about women making coerced choices vanishes.
Do they even believe it themselves? People who genuinely believe something don’t make ad hoc arguments; the things you really believe don’t wink in and out depending on the topic. So I have to wonder: Do pro-lifers themselves believe what they’re saying?
Fred Clark, a turncoat from the pro-life movement, says no. He quotes Dannenfelser’s response as an example of what he calls “the Standard Answer”, and then recalls his own experience.
I relied on the Standard Answer when I was a good, faithful pro-lifer. It made the question go away, just as it was meant to do. The Standard Answer worked very well for me until one day, suddenly, it didn’t.
It stopped working for me because, alas, I started listening to what I was saying.
That led to an “unsettling” realization.
I did not want my questioners to think that I wanted to see these women punished because I genuinely did not want to see them punished. At some basic level — some level at which I had not yet allowed myself to articulate my own thoughts to myself — I did not think that punishing these women would be good, fair, right, necessary or just. I thought punishing these women would be wrong.
Why would I think that? Well, that was the question that the Standard Answer was designed and employed to prevent me from ever asking of myself. …
I came to realize I was incapable of defending the central dogma of the anti-abortion religion my people had adopted as the central pillar of our faith — that a fertilized egg is morally and legally indistinct from a human child or a human adult. If that claim were defensible, then I would have no reason not to want to see those women punished and no reason not to try to convince others that they also should want to see those women punished.
Please note what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying I became incapable of believing this claim about the full personhood of the zygote, but that I became incapable of defending it. I’m not sure that anyone is ever capable of believing this claim. 
Anyone with functioning compassion understands what Clark realized: that it’s just wrong to punish a woman who sees no better path into the future than having an abortion. So if that’s where the logic of your position relentlessly leads, but you want to go on thinking of yourself as a good and decent person, you need to obfuscate that logic somehow — not just for other people, but for yourself.
That’s what the rest of us need to understand: When pro-lifers give the Standard Answer, they aren’t even trying to make sense; they’re trying to comfort themselves. They’re trying to minimize the cognitive dissonance that comes from advocating something harsh and heartless while claiming to be good Christian people.
Trump didn’t misstate the logic of their position, he just failed to include the comforting obfuscation they need. No wonder they got so upset.
 Of his statements checked by PolitiFact, only 8% are judged True or Mostly True, compared to 78% Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire. By contrast, 51% of Hillary Clinton’s checked statements rate True or Mostly True, with only 28% Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire. Bernie Sanders‘ split is similar: 51% to 29%.
 A lot of people will tell you that this position is Biblical, but it isn’t. In actual history, anti-abortion politics came first, and the justifying theology came later. None of the Bible passages ensoulment-at-conception people quote supports their position without a lot of interpretation, and many are simple taken out of context.
On the other hand, Genesis 2:7 states pretty clearly that the soul enters the body with the first breath:
And the Lord God made man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.
That interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the words for breath and soul in Biblical Hebrew are very similar.
 In 2012, I described the role that legal abortion played in the choices my wife and I made in “What Abortion Means to Me“.
 I made a similar claim in the fifth of my “Five Take-Aways from the Komen Fiasco“.