Donald Trump’s comments aside, we already punish women who seek abortions

By Jennifer Thibodeau, Andrea Irwin, and Anne Fowler

April 4, 2016

Last week, Donald Trump stated that there should be some kind of punishment for women who have abortions. We saw a heartening and swift response from friends, colleagues, leaders and the media: Trump’s comments were outrageous and infuriating.

We’re glad people are angry about Trump’s comments about abortion. We hope people will continue to push back against any attempts to punish people who have abortions, provide abortions, or simply consider abortion. It’s important to recognize, however, that Trump simply said out loud what opponents of abortion have believed for years, what Ted Cruz has voted for and what John Kasich has enacted.

Since 2011, states have passed nearly 300 laws restricting abortion, passing 57 in the past year alone. In states like Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, abortion has been so severely restricted it may as well be illegal for a large number of women.

Let’s be clear: Those who exercise their constitutionally protected right to seek, access and provide abortion are already being punished, and any efforts to restrict or ban abortion are attempts — either overt or veiled — to punish women who seek abortion.

When Medicaid and Medicare will cover the cost of prenatal care and miscarriage management but not abortion, we impose an unequitable financial punishment on those who have decided to end a pregnancy.

When politically motivated regulations with no basis in medicine force health care providers to close or impose mandatory waiting periods, we punish patients by requiring that they drive hundreds of miles, miss work (risking loss of wages or even the loss of that job), find child care and spend money on travel and lodging that they may not have and shouldn’t have to spend in order to get care they should have a legal right to, forcing some desperate women to take matters into their own hands.

When we require that minors notify their parents of their decision to seek abortion, we make it clear that acceptable punishments for teens who seek abortion include getting kicked out of their homes, becoming homeless, risking their education, or facing violence from family members.

When we require physicians to read scripted misinformation to patients and force patients to have (and see, and listen to) ultrasounds they don’t get to consent to, we build undue emotional and physical punishment into the abortion procedure itself. Because these procedures almost never impact a patient’s decision, we should see them for what they are: an attempt to punish and condescend to women.

Health care providers who offer abortion are regularly harassed, stalked, threatened and, sometimes, murdered — simply for providing a safe, legal medical procedure. And as we saw in Colorado Springs, violence is a punishment too often inflicted on those who walk through the doors of a reproductive health center.

Staff, patients and those who accompany them to reproductive health centers must navigate protesters who shout lies, harass, use violent language and thrust graphic images in their faces simply to access care or go to work. Since we know that protesters don’t change minds — their real purpose is to make patients feel distressed and ashamed — how can we see this as anything other than an attempt to emotionally punish those who seek abortion?

Many in the anti-abortion movement have been quick to condemn Trump’s statement because they are worried someone is finally naming what they do: punish women by making abortion impossible to access without significant hardship. They know this stance is widely unpopular and offensive to most Americans. One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Those women deserve to access medical care without fear of violence, harassment, or punishment. Their health shouldn’t be subjected to an extreme political agenda.

It’s time for everyone who was disturbed by Trump’s words and the actions those words represent to stand up for safe, legal, meaningful access to abortion — without punishment. Let’s recognize efforts to limit, restrict, or ban abortion for what they are — attempts to punish and control women, families and health care providers. Let’s speak up when those around us profess to support abortion as long as those involved have to suffer at least a little bit in order to get the care they need. Let’s stop shaming, condescending to and trying to control women.

The outcry following Trump’s comments was swift and clear: People who seek abortion shouldn’t be punished for making the right decision for themselves and their families. It’s time to make that ideal a reality.


This OpEd originally ran in the Bangor Daily News

Jennifer Thibodeau is director of communications at Maine Family Planning. Andrea Irwin is executive director of the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor. The Rev. Anne Fowler is a Planned Parenthood of Northern New England board member.