Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
This week, former National Review writer Kevin Williamson was fired by The Atlantic after 2014 audio proved that Williamson did, in fact, mean it when he said people who’ve had abortions should be hanged. In the resulting conservative meltdown, what right-wing outlets seemed desperate to do is have any conversation other than the one actually at hand. Instead, they chose to cry censorship, bemoan so-called liberal bias, and tried to rewrite history by saying Williamson was fired for holding a general anti-abortion stance.
But this retelling is fundamentally untrue. Williamson wasn’t fired because he holds anti-abortion views. He was fired because he repeatedly, across multiple platforms, advocated for the criminalization and brutal execution of people seeking abortion care. And the fervor to distract from that truth would be truly astounding, if it wasn’t so eminently predictable.
When news of Williamson’s hiring first broke, a number of pundits across the ideological spectrum tripped over themselves to downplay and excuse his statements — defending a so-called “provocateur” whose cherished turns of phrase include calling attacking transgender people as being “delusional,” and arguing that “it just simply is not the case that young black men are getting gunned down, unarmed, by police officers in any sort of significant numbers.” These writers — including The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who initially framed Williamson’s comment as an “objectionable tweet” — argued that Williamson hadn’t really meant what he said about people who’ve had abortions being executed, and asked us to kindly calm down. “For heaven’s sake,” wrote The New York Times’ Bret Stephens, “it was a tweet.” Others, such as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum called the rightful outrage over Williamson’s hiring, “weird,” while National Review’s David French implored readers to just “give tolerance a chance.”
Once Williamson’s meaning proved truly undeniable, leading to his firing, right-wing media outlets raced to reframe the conversation — ignoring the substance of his remarks to instead cry wolf about perceived ideological intolerance. For example, The Federalist wrote that Williamson “was fired for his opinions on abortion” after “the usual suspects freaked out and proceeded to dig up old tweets and audio.” Washington Examiner published not one, but two, pieces arguing that Williamson was a victim in a larger ideological war. In another example, RedState argued that Williamson wasn’t fired because of his “fanciful views about legal consequences connected to abortion,“ but that he was “kicked out for refusing to back down in expressing that abortion is murder and should be viewed as such even in this current climate.” David French even asked where the respect for Williamson’s tolerance was as he is “the son of a teen mom, born shortly before Roe v. Wade, and narrowly escaped being aborted,” who would’ve been forced to share an office at The Atlantic with people who support abortion access.
What these defenses, and even Goldberg’s original justification for hiring Williamson, ignore is that statements like Williamson’s send a clear message to the one-in-four women who’ve had abortions in the United States: that their lives do not matter, that they are criminal, and that they deserve (even in hypothetical terms) to be brutally executed for seeking constitutionally protected and sometimes life-saving medical care.
Williamson wasn’t fired because he’s anti-abortion — he was fired because he advocated for the brutal punishment of those who’ve have abortions. Even if you grant the premise that Williamson was merely expressing what could happen in a future without legal abortion, that he not only carved out an exception to his overall ambivalent stance on the death penalty for those who have abortions, but also advocated for a method that is considered too inhumane by almost all the states that currently employ capital punishment, takes his comments beyond mere speculation.
As research from Media Matters has previously shown, the people who are often empowered to shape the conversation about abortion are overwhelmingly men. As a result, these conversations reflect not only an incomplete understanding but also treat abortion as some sort of hypothetical thought exercise or as a political bargaining chip, ignoring real impacts that lack of access has on the lives of real people.
Furthermore, Williamson’s defense of capital punishment for those who’ve had abortions is extreme but not really that hypothetical. Already, policies at the state level punish people for attempting to access abortion care. As Irin Carmon wrote in 2016: “Just ask Purvi Patel, who is appealing a 30-year prison sentence for her conviction for feticide in Indiana,” or Anna Yocca, Rennie Gibbs, Jennie Lynn McCormack, or Jennifer Whalen. She continued that all these cases all demonstrate how “women have been prosecuted under current restrictions on abortion, at times with major felonies.” Just this week in Idaho, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Bob Nonini was forced to walk back comments that the Associated Press characterized as “women who get an abortion should be punished” including that “that the punishment should include the death penalty.” During the presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (before later backtracking) that he thought there should “be some form of punishment” for people who have abortions. As Robin Marty explained, although the right may claim that punishing people for abortion is merely an “extreme fringe” of the movement, there are already anti-abortion groups and candidates running on platforms incredibly similar to what Williamson advocates.
Williamson felt so strongly on this topic that he even confirmed at the time to an anti-abortion publication that he meant exactly what he said. Given that right-wing media outlets have regularly participated in or facilitated anti-abortion harassment, it’s not surprising to see a lack of concern about Williamson’s comments. Conservatives may be desperate to change the conversation, but the fact remains: advocating for the brutal execution of people who’ve had abortions isn’t provocative or tolerant — it’s cruel.
Header image by Sarah Wasko / Media Matters