Background: Teresa Lewis is a death row inmate in Virginia. She was convicted of masterminding a plot to kill her husband and stepson, although she did not pull the trigger herself. There’s considerable controversy over Lewis’ mental capacity. Her supporters say that she’s borderline mentally retarded; the prosecution says that’s ridiculous. But the real media draw is Lewis’ sex: if all goes according to Virginia’s plan, she will be the first woman executed in that state in nearly a century. Governor McDonnell recently denied her clemency. (For the record, I do wish that he had granted clemency, but that’s just because I’m opposed to the death penalty as a general matter.)
At Slate, William Saletan has an article entitled “Punitive Dissonance,” in which he notes that Virginia’s partial-birth abortion ban punishes abortionists, but not clients. Comparing Lewis’ situation to that of a woman who masterminds her unborn child’s death but doesn’t “pull the trigger,” he accuses McDonnell of hypocrisy.
I think Saletan’s argument breaks down right about here:
The standard pro-life rationale for not prosecuting women in these cases is that women don’t understand what’s being done to their babies. But McDonnell has worked hard to make sure that they do understand. Nine years ago, he introduced legislation stipulating that 24 hours before an abortion, the doctor must offer the woman “printed materials” depicting the fetus, its “physiological characteristics,” and “the methods of abortion procedures commonly employed.” Those rules were enacted in 2001 and have been Virginia law ever since. Even if a woman refuses the materials, the law requires the doctor to tell her the “gestational age of the fetus” and to offer “further information concerning the procedures” that will be used.
Because surely someone who performs a partial-birth abortion in violation of state and federal law is going to transform into Dudley Do-right when it comes to the informed consent law. Right?
We must also remember that, even when consent is informed, free choice may still be lacking: more than half of American abortions are coerced.
Saletan’s sights aren’t just set on McDonnell, but on the entire pro-life movement:
Why the discrepancy? The answer is obvious: Like other pro-lifers, McDonnell doesn’t really believe that fetuses have the same right to life as the rest of us.
Okay, Mr. Saletan. Since you know so much about what I believe, could you let me know why I’ve dedicated years of my life to protecting the unborn? (To oppress women, no doubt. Please.)
The issue here is not what pro-lifers believe, but what the Supreme Court believes. When the federal government defended its partial-birth abortion ban, it could not argue that it was protecting the right to life of late-term fetuses; Roe and Casey had effectively closed that door. It instead had to rely on secondary interests, among them maintaining the integrity of the medical profession. This interest would justify punishing abortionists, but it wouldn’t justify punishing clients.
Saletan is eager to bash pro-lifers for alleged inconsistencies, but let’s bear in mind that he doesn’t actually want us to become more consistent. What he wants is for us to become pro-abortion; in other words, he wants us to accept some of the greatest inconsistencies the human mind has ever devised.
I hope Saletan someday meets a woman who regrets her abortion. He’ll quickly realize that she’s been through punishment enough.