Chris Matthews’ recent interview with Donald Trump on MSNBC is, in my view, the most important exchange on abortion in television history.

Matthews excelled on two points. First, he forced Trump to answer a hard question thoughtfully. Then he brought clarity to the absurdity of the so-called “pro-life” position on abortion.

The “Hardball” daily news show host is renowned for a blunt style that nails his subjects at the most vulnerable point of their position. Matthews exposed not only the weakness of Trump’s intellectual capacity, but the weakness of the anti-abortion movement’s foundational goal.

“I’ve never understood the pro-life position,” Matthews said. He asked Trump a series of the most basic questions anti-abortion advocates must answer: “Should a woman be punished for having an abortion? … If you say that abortion is a crime or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under the law. … Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?”

After dodges and diversions, Trump finally answered: “The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.”

Matthews pressed him: “For the woman?”

“Yeah, there has to be some form,” Trump said.

Within minutes of the airing of this segment of the hour-long interview, the anti-abortion and pro-choice communities exploded.

Pro-choice advocates were horrified that the leading Republican presidential candidate said he would, in effect, ban abortion—by appointing conservative judges—and punish women who seek the procedure illegally.

The anti-abortion community was humiliated: One of their advocates was so unfamiliar with their sophistry that he inadvertently exposed them to public ridicule by airing the idea that criminalizing women was a goal of the movement.

Within hours, the newly educated Trump campaign issued the following statement:

“If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”

With this, the anti-abortion community welcomed Trump back to the fold. But his statement revealed a chilling aspect of the movement’s views on the moral position of women in regard to abortion. Opponents reason that women should not be punished because they are incapable of making responsible decisions about their reproductive lives. Their philosophy is that women are the secondary victims of abortion.

This is both a legal strategy and a moral argument. Legally, laws prosecuting abortion providers exempt a woman from accomplice status in order to make her available as a witness against the provider. Without this loophole there would be no witness to the “crime.” Abortion opponents argue that from a moral standpoint, profit-seeking providers, the men in women’s lives (husbands, boyfriends, fathers), a pro-choice culture and the “billion-dollar” abortion industry conspire to coerce women into undergoing abortion.

What really angers the anti-abortion movement is that if he were a true “pro-lifer,” Trump should have known this line of reasoning. After all, this issue has been debated and defended for years. In 2007, the conservative National Review assembled the best answers to the charge of inconsistency lodged against a movement that calls abortion “murder” but exempts the woman who has one from any penalty for the “crime.” Joseph Dellapenna, a professor at Villanova University School of Law, offers a typical response:

[Journalist] Anna Quindlen concludes her article by arguing that one must either hold women criminally accountable for an abortion or refuse to criminalize abortions. She also insists that to consider any other option would be to infantilize women, assigning them to a subordinate place to the men who do the abortion or the men who pressure them into having the abortion. This is an appealing argument, but it evades a number of hard facts that demonstrate that the matter is not as simple as her reasoning suggests. …

[I]f the woman were a criminal co-conspirator with the abortionist, in the common law tradition, the abortionist could not be convicted on the basis of the woman’s uncorroborated testimony—and all too often there were no other witnesses and no other evidence. This problem was also solved by treating the woman as a victim rather than as a co-criminal. …

The special cases of women (whether adults or minors) who are literally forced into an abortion could perhaps be dealt with by special legislative provisions. Yet the situation is not so simple. Significant evidence led one sociologist to conclude that “the attitude of the man is the most important variable in a woman’s decision to have an abortion.” Sorting these questions out could lead to the conclusion that enough doubt exists that a woman should not be sent to prison for undergoing an abortion.

Beyond the woman herself, there remains the abortion industry—a billion-dollar-a-year industry that some, at least, see as preying on women nearly as much as it preys on unborn children. Despite all the changes in the realities of abortion over the last century, it remains as true today as it was 200 or 400 years ago that going after the woman seems less important [than] going after the industry. It is no more inconsistent to criminalize the abortionist and not the woman having the abortion than it would be to decriminalize the use of certain recreational drugs (say, marijuana) while vigorously pursuing the drug dealers—even though most drug users exercise a significant element of choice in using the drug.

Now I understand. Some women are just abortion addicts! Treatment, not prosecution, is the “pro-life” preferred approach.

But there is another faction of the anti-abortion movement that has been eerily quiet in this debate. The “personhood movement” seeks to change state laws and constitutions in order to grant “personhood” at the moment of conception. Such laws do not exempt women who undergo self-induced abortions. Witness the response in this article from Personhood USA to the Tennessee woman charged with attempted murder when she used a coat hanger to induce an abortion:

The laws in Tennessee are so blatantly biased in favor of abortion clinics, it’s almost difficult to believe. …

While Tennessee law does allow for attempted murder charges in cases such as [Anna] Yocca’s, the law provides specific provisions for women to hire an abortionist to kill their babies at Planned Parenthood in Nashville and around the state.

As a mom, it’s hard to imagine the mental state of a woman who would so viciously harm both herself and her child, whether it be at her own hands or at a government-funded facility like Planned Parenthood. This is why we need Personhood! Of course this little baby’s life is precious and should be protected and legally defended, as should every other baby!

The author of this article is disappointed that safe, legal abortions—and their providers—are exempt from the personhood laws.

In the Yocca case quoted above, the abortion was brutal and extreme in its primitive method. But the reality that the anti-abortion movement does not want to face is that over-the-counter drugs like Plan B (which opponents view as causing abortions) and soon-to-be-available abortion pills are allowing women to take abortion into their own hands.

Should the anti-abortion movement triumph in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case currently before the Supreme Court that would close most abortion clinics in Texas (and ultimately the nation), self-administered abortions, whether induced with coat hangers or drugs, will become more common, as will prosecutions such as those in Yocca’s case. The question of punishment for women having abortions is not at all hypothetical. It is already happening.

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