Should a Woman Be Punished for Having an Abortion?

On Wednesday Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump made waves in the mainstream media (even by Trump standards) when he took part in the following exchange with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.

MATTHEWS: For the woman.

TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form.

MATTHEWS: Ten cents? Ten years? What?

TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.

Don’t punish the woman?

Amid the backlash over Trump’s answer, many pro-life advocates said that they would not punish women who have abortions but punish only the abortionists. Trump himself later said,

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.

I don’t think we can simply say the woman has suffered enough from the abortion itself and doesn’t need to be punished. We would never say a mother who drowned her child in the bathtub had suffered enough from watching him die and so shouldn’t be punished. No—if she knew it was wrong and chose to do it anyway, punishment would be deserved.[1]

After all, isn’t it unfair that, in many states, men or women who kill a wanted fetus are legally punished? Most people did not consider it outrageous when Scott Peterson was convicted in 2004 of two counts of murder for the death of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. So why wouldn’t we charge Laci with committing a crime if she were to kill her own child under the same circumstances? It is precisely the question of circumstances that makes it difficult to answer whether or not a woman should be punished for obtaining an illegal abortion.

Even if pro-life advocates did not believe women should be punished for choosing abortion, that would not disprove the pro-life position. Inconsistent people can still be right. Prior to the Civil War, states that outlawed slavery still did not give black Americans the same legal protections as whites (e.g., blacks could not use white public facilities).

The fact that some laws failed to treat black Americans as equals did not invalidate other laws that did treat them as equals (such as bans on slavery). Likewise, laws that fail to treat the unborn as equals in one respect (such as laws that do not severely punish people who kill the unborn) would not invalidate other laws that did treat the unborn as equals (such as abortion bans).[2]

I believe that pro-lifers can give a consistent and compelling answer to this objection.

Answering a contentious question

When I am asked about how women who choose illegal abortions should be punished, I reframe the question in order to get at the moral logic that hides behind our conflicting emotions. The larger question we should ask is, “What punishment should women receive when they kill any of their children, born or unborn?”

One example I use comes from Virginia, where in 2009 the local district attorney refused to prosecute a woman who gave birth to her child in a hotel room and then smothered the child. An investigator from the local sheriff’s office said that because the umbilical cord was still attached, what the mother did was no different than a late-term abortion. She said:

I believe everyone was upset, except for the person who should have been upset, the mother. In the state of Virginia, as long as the umbilical cord is attached and the placenta is still in the mother, if the baby comes out alive, the mother can do whatever she wants to with that baby to kill it. And in the state of Virginia, it’s no crime. . . . Simply because the mother was there, and the baby had not taken its own identity allegedly at this point, it makes the baby not its own person.[3]

If we can agree that this woman should have been punished for what was undoubtedly infanticide, then we should ask, “What should the punishment be if she had killed the baby five minutes earlier while it was in her womb?” I don’t think such a small difference in time and the location of the baby would change our intuitions about the matter. What about five weeks earlier? Or five months earlier? What should the punishment be for a woman who chooses abortion?

The most honest answer is the same answer we give for every other crime: “It depends.” In fact, if the pro-life advocate is stuck in a sound-bite situation, he can simply say that punishments for crimes are complex matters, but protecting the innocent is simple, and the unborn should simply be protected under the law. Punishments for crimes are not uniform because they are based on the killer’s intent and the circumstances involved and not just on the kind of crime committed. Not every homicide is considered first-degree murder, and punishment for homicide can vary from the death penalty to probation.

For many women, abortion has been legal for their entire lives, and in the United States there are no public education campaigns to discourage them from having an abortion (unlike for other harmful things such as smoking). Professional medical organizations endorse abortion, and many women choose abortion when their partner, family, or health-care provider suggests or imposes it upon them.

Finally, most women do not intend to kill their child through abortion. They just don’t want to be pregnant. They may even think abortion is a form of surgical contraception that keeps a potential person from becoming an actual baby.

Because of these factors, women may not be completely responsible morally for choosing abortion and so may not deserve as harsh a punishment as pro-choice advocates claim they would receive under an abortion ban. This reasoning is not a case of special pleading for the pro-life view; it is used to justify giving lighter sentences to women who kill their born infants.[4]

Infanticide is considered less serious than first-degree murder, because the perpetrators of that crime are usually a danger only to their own offspring and are often under extreme emotional stress. Punishments for infanticide can be as light as one to two years’ imprisonment, or even probation.[5]

If abortion were made illegal, “feticide” laws could be enacted that mirror current infanticide laws in language and range of punishments. That way, women who chose abortion, as well as the men who cooperate and the doctors who perform the procedure, would be appropriately punished based on each person’s level of moral responsibility.

Just remember: The question is not “Should we punish women for having abortions?” The morally relevant questions are instead: “Should men and women be held legally responsible for killing children?” And “Should we discriminate against children based on their age or where they live, or how dependent they are on their mothers?”

This post is adapted from Horn’s book Persuasive Pro-life: How to Talk About Our Culture’s Toughest Issue (2014).


[1] Other pro-life advocates say that women would always be given legal immunity so that abortion providers could be convicted from their testimony, but this would not explain what to do with women who self-abort. In addition, couldn’t we find other evidence to indict the abortion provider besides the woman’s testimony?

[2] George Dennis O’Brien rejects this argument in his book The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent, Rowan and Littlefield Publishing, 2010, 26-27. He says that “to will the ends is to will the means,” and since Catholic bishops are not vocal about inflicting criminal penalties upon women who choose abortion, they should give up publicly trying to outlaw abortion. O’Brien’s argument is less than convincing. What would he make of states that, in an effort to get teen girls out of prostitution and not throw them in jail, criminalize buying sex but not selling it? After all, to will the end of prostitution is to will the means of arresting these teen girls, right? I don’t see any conflict in passing imperfect laws in order to achieve some level of justice instead of passing no laws and failing to achieve any just ends.

[3] Angela Hatcher, “Campbell County mother can’t be charged in baby’s death,” NBC 12 News, December 16, 2009,

[4] In Great Britain, infanticide is recognized as a separate crime as a result of the 1938 Infanticide Act. In jurisdictions like the United States, there is no separate charge for infanticide, but the distinction is present in the severity of the sentence.

[5] This includes Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, who were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and Melissa Drexler, who killed her infant after giving birth at her prom and was released on parole after three years. But this should not be construed to mean that all infant killers are given light sentences. A woman who maliciously and repeatedly killed infants would be an example of someone who is fully culpable for her crimes (provided she was not insane) and would be subject to harsher penalties. One example would be Genene Jones, who may have killed up to fifty infants as a nurse and was sentenced in 1985 to ninety-nine years in prison.

Written By Trent Horn



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    “When I am asked about how women who choose illegal abortions should be punished, I reframe the question in order to get at the moral logic that hides behind our conflicting emotions.”
    Yes, you reframe the question, but you ignore the real core of the question – what happens to the souls that you insist exist (without evidence of any sort), when they are aborted? That’s the real question – what happens to the souls if they exist? You need to first confirm that some harm is taking place. First you have to prove there is actually a soul, which can’t be done at this point, but if we allow you to assert that the soul does exist, then you have to prove that there is some actual harm to that soul, for which punishment is deserved.
    The RCC provides three options that I’m aware of for aborted, miscarried or unbaptised infants: a) they go to Hell, b) they go to Limbo, c) you are allowed to “hope” that God is not a monster and will grant them salvation. The Church is adamant that baptism is necessary for salvation, so there’s not a whole lot of “hope” to work with. The Catholic Church believes that its god is a monster who violates His own OT rules about proportionate justice, as well as His NT ‘talking points’ about love, mercy, compassion and justice.
    If Catholic god denies salvation to innocent souls that had no ability to prevent their sin of dying before baptism, then He is not a “good” god and is not deserving of worship. If our “hope” is answered and Catholic god takes those souls into heaven, then what’s the problem? Isn’t that the goal of all Christians – to get from here to where ever it is that God is? Or is that the problem? The aborted soul goes from starting line to winner’s circle without running the race or throwing the salvation dice. The soul stands about a 1 in 7 chance of worshipping the right god, the Catholic god, the wrong god, or no god at all – the end result being eternal torment in unquenching fire for a bad spin of the salvation dice. To go straight to heaven without having to roll those dice? Sounds like quite a deal to me, if souls go to heaven. And what if they want another crack at it, is Bible God going to sentence them to eternal bliss?
    I agree that if one were to determine that abortion is a bad thing, then the woman shares culpability, but she didn’t get pregnant alone, even though the woman seems to be the one Mr. Horn is most interested in punishing. But that’s a secondary issue. The primary issue is, what moral harm has been done? Has Bible God been illustrated to be evil by sending completely innocent, aborted souls to Hell, or are pro-lifers jealous because the soul goes straight to heaven and doesn’t have to suffer like we do and doesn’t’ have to gamble like the rest of us, that we’ve chosen to believe the right thing… Ask your priest – what happens to the souls? The catechism is clear. Make them say it out loud. Make them tell you that their god is a monster who most probably sends aborted souls, along with those who are miscarried or commit the crime of dying before being baptized, to the fires of Hell because they have original sin, something discounted by evolution, and something, that if it existed, the innocent soul could never be responsible for.

  2. Barry John Reply

    If a murderer shoots and kills a pregnant woman they are charged with double homicide. Something that pro abortionists support but when it comes to abortions the baby is mysteriously just a clump of cells.

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      It’s much more complex than that Barry John. Many pro-choice folks would punish the shooter for the additional harm done to the woman for losing her child, but are wary of the slippery slope of calling a mass of cells a human life, particularly in its earliest stages. Search and look for “fetal homicide state laws” for more information.

      Take a crack at my question above. What happens to the soul? Let’s say it’s a good Catholic woman who has been to confession recently and has no mortal sins on her soul. She gets shot and killed and her unborn baby also dies. She goes straight to heaven, but what happens to the soul of her baby? Will she ever get to see it, given that the Church says it goes to Hell or Limbo and the mother can only “hope” that God will let her see her baby. The Catechism is pretty adamant that you have to be baptised to be saved. If God instead, condemns that soul to separation for all eternity – in Hell or Limbo – how can the mother ever truly be happy in heaven, knowing she will never, ever, get to see her child, and knowing her child is being punished for something it had no control over. Heck, the killer may have accepted Jesus on his deathbed prior to being executed, and the killer may be in heaven, while the soul of the unbaptized child languishes for eternity in Hell. Not a pretty picture, is it?

      Now, would it be better if the woman was an atheist, or Jew or Hindu or someone who doesn’t believe say and do the right things with regard to Jesus? Now both of them, mother and baby, go to Hell, right? At least they get to see each other! Ah, perhaps not. Catholic God would probably send the woman to Hell and the baby to LImbo, opting for maximum cruelty, in keeping with what the Church has taught us about Him.

  3. David Reply

    Patrick Gannon, a human is a human is a human. (Not a clump of cells) The end.

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      No, David; that’s not the end. What happens to the soul is “the end.”
      What makes it a human, Christians say, is that it has a soul and the soul is embedded or created at conception. Fine, let’s accept that, even though there’s no way to prove souls exist. (The original word simply meant “breath” as in breath of life). This soul was created with the stain of original sin. In Catholic doctrine, you can’t be saved with original sin on your soul; you must be baptized. The Catechism is pretty adamant about this. The default position is that the soul of the aborted or miscarried unborn child is doomed. Catholic Bible God is going to send it to Hell for the crime of dying before it was baptized. Oh you’re allowed to believe that it goes to Limbo and does not suffer the pains of those who committed mortal sins, but the “loving” Catholic God is going to punish this completely innocent and helpless soul for something it could not be responsible for – any more than any of us can be responsible for the actions of a mythical Adam and Eve. Further, in the case of miscarriage where a mother might want to see her unborn child, the Catholic God is going to punish the woman as well, because if she goes to heaven and the unborn child is in Limbo or Hell, she’ll never get to see it. The Church says you are allowed to “hope” that Catholic God isn’t a monster, and will actually permit the soul to be saved, but if He can do that, then He could relieve original sin from everyone without needing baptism, couldn’t He? Things can get messy when you take your Catholic dogma out for a walk…

  4. Sylvia Reply

    Woman and man…all.have a hand in the arbotion..especially when a man refuses to give the necessary help to the pregnant woman and then forced to arbort.Arbotion is sin and so we should all find ways of avoiding it.Though God is mercy and so forgives anyone who arborts…but continous arbotions by one person…that God is to judge

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