“How much time should she do?”
That question was posed by Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen back in 2007. “She” is a woman who aborts a pregnancy; the “time” is the number of years she should spend behind bars for it.
Quindlen’s question suggested that women were regularly imprisoned for having abortions prior to Roe v. Wade—and if we elect Republicans, thousands of women will again be headed for the jailhouse.
It’s the myth that just won’t go away. On Tuesday, California Senator Barbara Boxer used it to attack challenger Carly Fiorina’s anti-abortion stance, saying it would “mean women in jail. That is so out of touch with Californians.”
Sounds scary. Boxer echoed a group called the Winning Message Action Fund, which released a video in 2008 titled “How Much Time?” In between images of crying and distraught women getting their mug shots, the narrator intones: “John McCain and Sarah Palin want to overturn Roe v. Wade, which protects a woman’s right to choose. If that happens, 21 states will immediately move to make abortion a crime. And women will be treated like criminals.”
It’s true that at least 21 states want to make abortion a crime. But the next statement is a deliberate lie. Women in this country have never been treated like criminals for having an abortion; only the person who performs it has.
If we take some pro-choicers’ claims at face value, thousands of women were rotting in prison before Roe v. Wade, tried and convicted of murder for having an abortion. In reality, only two have ever been prosecuted: a Pennsylvania woman in 1911, a Texan in 1922. (The charges against the Pennsylvanian were quickly thrown out.) This is insignificant as far as historical injustices go. In the 19th century, a dozen Americans were convicted of murdering people who later turned out to be alive. Our justice system has always been far from perfect, but contrary to pro-choice mythology, women seeking abortions aren’t among the victims.
Women have never gone to jail for performing self-abortions, either. Villanova Law professor Joseph Dellapenna looked into the matter for his book, Dispelling Myths of Abortion History, and concluded that no American woman had ever stood trial for inducing her own abortion. The last known prosecution happened in England in 1599.
Today, not one proposed abortion ban criminalizes the woman who has an abortion. In fact, measures like the infamous South Dakota abortion ban of 2006 made no mention of her—only of the person performing it. The doctor is the one subjected to jail time and fines. The doctor is the only person these laws aim to punish.
If pro-choice activists have faith in the movement, they need to do better than trotting out a scenario that never happened in this country and claiming it’s a historical reality on the verge of re-emerging. If they truly have the moral high ground, they have nothing to lose from being honest.