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Democrats, it’s not enough to talk about abortion. Let’s talk about criminalization.

We need to be telling the stories of the women who have been prosecuted for lost pregnancies.

Photo by Niu Niu/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In the summer of 2020, when I was working as a hospital chaplain in Kansas, a mother asked me to baptize the remains of her fetus. This fetus had almost certainly been aborted, yet the patient still regarded it as her child and wanted them received into the church.

I prayed a brief prayer with her and then, dipping a small seashell in holy water, sprinkled the forehead of her baby three times, blessing them and commending them to God’s love and eternal care. With that accomplished, the mother thanked me and politely asked me to go.

I left that encounter with a sense of reverence for this woman, who had found herself at what I can only imagine was a harrowing moment of meaning-making, and sadness over the difficulty her circumstance presented. Whatever else was true of the situation, I walked away with the firm conviction that it would have been a sin to project anxiety or judgment on the mother who was party to it. The last thing that she needed was condemnation, much less punishment.

The labels like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” fade into irrelevance in the face of the reality of abortion, as do abstractions about the critical — though maddeningly elusive — question of when a human life begins. People disagree on that question in good faith, but there is surprisingly broad consensus about the more immediately relevant issue of abortion criminalization.


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In the few days leading up to the midterm elections, abortion rights proponents need to focus on mobilizing voters around that consensus. The current abortion debate needs to be understood not as an issue of “pro-life” opposing “pro-choice,” but as an issue of compassionate folks from all walks of life opposing the legislative agenda of dangerous ideologues in Washington, D.C., and state capitals who want to punish all abortion-seekers.

Much of our talk about abortion policy neglects its implications for real people, like the mom I worked with as a chaplain. Most people who endorse “pro-life” candidates do not realize that they might end up sending women like her to prison.

In my home state of Kansas this summer, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have stripped away constitutional abortion protections there, even though 45% of Kansans consider themselves pro-life. Most people I spoke with while I was home had a firm religious conviction that life began at conception and said that they thought abortion was wrong. Almost no one was prepared to send someone to jail over it, though. Every good-faith actor I encountered recognized abortion criminalization as egregious when presented with examples of women who were treated as murderers by their government.

As candidates campaign this week, they should be mindful that voters may be less likely to be won over with explicitly “pro-choice” messaging than with the reality of what abortion criminalization will actually entail.

Democrats need to be telling the stories of women like Purvi Patel, who was convicted of feticide in 2015 and sentenced to 20 years in prison by the state of Indiana for using an abortion medication, and Kenlissia Jones, who was charged with murder by the state of Georgia. We need to tell the story of Chelsea Becker, who, having demonstrated no intent to terminate a pregnancy that ended in stillbirth, was still imprisoned for 16 months while awaiting a murder trial. (The charges in these cases were eventually dropped or overturned.)

These stories are not isolated incidents, and the problem is getting worse. Between 1973 and 2005, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, more than 400 pregnancies were subject to criminal investigation or prosecution. As NPR reported, that number increased almost fourfold between 2006 and 2020. Right now, 38 states have fetal homicide laws on the books, 29 of them with no differentiation between stages of pregnancy.

Democrats can apply lessons from the Kansas midterm to move beyond political posturing and capitalize on the fact that Americans of all stripes understand that criminalizing abortion is wrong.

In the most recent Pew Research poll on the question, half of respondents said the “woman who had an abortion in a situation where it was illegal” should never face any penalties. Of those who did support some form of punishment, only 14% thought jail time appropriate; 16% favored community service and the remaining respondents remained unsure.


RELATED: Poll: Latinos, including Christians, overwhelmingly support abortion access


Put simply, a staggering 86% of Americans surveyed were unprepared to jail someone who undertook an illegal abortion. Interestingly, Gallup polling seems to indicate that roughly 4 in 10 of those who oppose jail sentences also refuse to call themselves “pro-choice.” Many of these people are GOP voters, roughly 35% of whom disagree with their party on this issue. What this means is that a substantial portion of voters are uncomfortable with abortion and even more uncomfortable with criminalizing it.

As we approach the first national elections post-Roe v. Wade, Democrats need to refocus the debate. In doing so, they will mobilize a coalition broader than the “pro-choice” camp. Democrats need to flip the script on abortion and make Republican leadership take responsibility for these atrocities. They need to strategically pivot from pleading with people to support abortion rights and start demanding that people show up to oppose abortion criminalization.

Right-wing extremists (and members of the establishment GOP who enable them) need to be forced to play defense on their indefensible policy proposals. They must be pressed to spell out, on the record, exactly what retribution they would visit upon people who get abortions if given the chance to implement their desired bans. All things equal, a significant portion of their own base will be demotivated — and swing voters repulsed — once they do.

(Ross M. Allen is an affiliate staff member at the University of Chicago, a research fellow at the Christian Century magazine and an ordinand in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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