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At the heart of the pro-life movement is a basic premise: Abortion is murder. An Idaho state senator, however, got unusual attention in February when he voiced that sentiment that to a group of students lobbying for birth control measures.

Conservative writer Kevin Williamson was recently hired by The Atlantic magazine — and promptly fired over old tweets in which he referred to the procedure as a “homicide” that should be treated “like any other homicide.” He added that those who support capital punishment (which he doesn’t) should favor the death penalty for women who get abortions.

The view that terminating a pregnancy amounts to baby-killing is standard among anti-abortion activists, but it has currency beyond them. Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writes, “When pollsters ask Americans whether abortion is an act of murder or the taking of a human life, pluralities or majorities say that it is.”

But this is a rhetorical device or a moral conceit, not a well-thought-out conviction. The vast majority of people who endorse it really don’t mean it. Even they exhibit a deep sense that a fetus has an appreciably lower status than an actual person.

Williamson’s controversy is proof. What doomed him was a comment suggesting that women who get abortions should be hanged — though he later wrote, “I was making a point about the sloppy rhetoric of the abortion debate, not a public-policy recommendation.”

If abortion is morally indistinguishable from killing a newborn, though, why shouldn’t those who procure abortions be severely punished? It’s the clear logical implication of the pro-life argument.

Donald Trump inadvertently deviated from the pro-life playbook in 2016 when he said women who get abortions should face “some sort of punishment,” only to recant. Mike Pence insisted that he and Trump “would never support legislation against women who make the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.”

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said then, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”

“Healing” is not what people normally think is appropriate for cold-blooded killers, and murder is rarely portrayed as a “heartbreaking choice.” Those who speak this way are effectively conceding that abortion is fundamentally different from homicide.

Trump is one of them. He regularly calls for tough measures to curb Chicago’s homicides, which totaled 650 last year. Nationally, however, there are some 650,000 abortions annually. If they amount to murder, then the non-fetuses who die are a small share of the homicide total.

But hardly anyone truly regards having an abortion as equal in evil to killing an adult or a child. Hardly anyone thinks a woman who has an abortion belongs in a cell next to a guy who strangles his child.

About 1 of every 4 American women will have an abortion by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. If you regard abortion as murder and think your sister, daughter, aunt, niece, cousin or friend should go to prison for decades — or be executed — if she ever terminated a pregnancy, you’re being consistent. If you regard abortion as murder and think they deserve a gentle path to healing, you’re not.

But few opponents of abortion grasp what it would mean to seriously regard the embryo as a full human starting at conception. As Northwestern University bioethicist Katie Watson notes in her recent book Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion, half of fertilized eggs fail to implant, and up to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

“If fertilized eggs are morally equivalent to born people,” she asks, “why aren’t we devoting tremendous research dollars to stopping miscarriages?” The silence on “natural” losses in pregnancy speaks volumes.

If abortion is not murder, it is impossible to justify banning it, early in pregnancy or later. Women have the right to control their own bodies — have knee surgery or not, donate blood or not, go sky diving or not. The freedom to end a pregnancy is part of that physical autonomy.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: A protester holds up a sign in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on the morning the court took up a major abortion case, Washington March 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

 

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