Donald Trump is right – the pro-life movement is about punishing women

If you believe that abortion should be banned except in cases of rape and incest, you are not “pro-life”. You are anti-woman. 

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Donald Trump thinks women should be punished for abortion. At least, he did for a few hours, answering the question put to him by a journalist with all the shifty-eyed, stammering self-confidence of a man trying to work out how many abortions he might have paid for in the past. Then, after an appropriate period of public consternation, the Republican frontrunner backtracked, repeating the current party line that only people performing abortions should face jail time.

We’ve come to expect this. Trump wears hypocrisy as proudly as he wears his shocking hairdo. He doesn’t just flip-flop: he cartwheels and scissors like a teenage Russian gymnast, twisting into ridiculous knots of logic according to the public mood with a forward momentum that defies ridicule and demands applause. This time, he changed his tune because the American pro-life movement, whose votes he needs, jumped to dissociate themselves from Trump's temporary platform shift. Pro-life organisations were quick to insist that they aren't about punishing women, just about protecting life.

Or are they?

Since the question of punishment is on the table, let's be very clear. If you believe that abortion should be banned except in cases of rape and incest, you are not “pro-life”. You are anti-woman. 

The illegal with exceptions line is a standard part of conservative, anti-abortion platforms across the US and elsewhere, and it’s jaw-dropping in its hypocrisy. After all, if you truly believe a foetus is an autonomous living being, why does it magically stop being one just because its mother failed to consent to intercourse? Does Jesus swoop down on a cloud of conservative hot air and make the ethical dilemma disappear with a bit of wizardly hand-waving? Or do you, fundamentally, just believe that women should suffer for having sex?

Imagine it. Imagine thinking that forcing a person to carry a growing foetus in her body for nine months and then push it out of her vagina while her muscles rip and her pelvis cracks is in any way humane. Imagine the level of self-deception it takes to think this and then turn around and claim you care about women. Perhaps you do, but you're remarkably laid back about watching them suffer for their sins. It’s the species of loving Christian care you’d expect from the Spanish Inquisition.

The “pro-life movement, which should properly be called the “forced birth movement, is in fact entirely about punishing women for their sexuality. It’s about punishing them legally, morally, spiritually and physically. That's what it has always been about, in every cultural and religious costume it has adopted over the past two centuries and more. The movement stuffed with people who believe that sex is dirty and women who have it willingly should pay the price.

Ideally by being forced to carry a pregnancy to term. If not, then by means of trans-vaginal ultrasounds, pointless enforced waiting periods, targeted domestic and professional harassment, and the real threat of jail if anything goes wrong. It’s about hurting women who have the gall to believe that they get to decide what happens to their bodies. Trump just had the grotesque decency to say it out loud for a hot minute.

That’s what Donald Trump is for. Donald Trump is a bloviating freakshow of the id whose job it is to articulate the ugliest parts of the modern psyche with enough pomp and gumption that it sounds like truth. We watch and cheer for the same reason that we watch shows about serial killers, so we can marinate in the horrified, pseudo-erotic certainty that however bad we are, in the secret places of our hearts, we're not that bad. Sure, we might think about these things, but we wouldn't actually do them.

But some truths are still too awkward to speak in public – even when they form the ideological basis of an entire conservative movement.

What does Donald Trump think about abortion? He thinks whatever you think about it, in the crabbed and hateful secret part of your soul that just wants those sluts to suffer. But Trump said it, so we don't have to. The monster isn’t you. But this time the monster bit too close to the bone. The pro-life movement isn’t ready to own its misogyny in the way that the Republican base is ready to own its racism and xenophobia, so Trump needed to be shut up, and fast. So much for free speech.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.