I’ll start by reminding readers that my policy preferences don’t align with Donald Trump’s policies, or with anyone else’s except in some minor cases that are mostly coincidence. In the case of abortion rights, I defer to the better-informed views of women. I like having the right to vote on every issue, but as a practical matter, men add nothing to the abortion discussion unless those men are doctors, scientists or philosophers. Women have this issue covered. So I support whatever the female majority wants to do with abortion.
I tell you my non-opinion on abortion because the messenger is always part of the message. You wouldn’t be able to appreciate the rest of this post without knowing my starting position.
You probably know by now that Trump suggested on live TV that law-breakers should be punished. On the surface, that seems like an obvious statement about accountability. But as it turns out, that general statement doesn’t work for the question of abortion, so all hell broke loose and Trump immediately backtracked and stated that if abortions were made illegal, only the doctors performing abortions should be charged with a crime.
A woman seeking an abortion is already paying a steep emotional and physical penalty, so her role is part victim, part perpetrator. Society – and now Trump – have chosen to focus on the victim part.
But Trump and other pro-lifers believe that if abortion becomes illegal – as they hope it does – it makes sense to punish the doctors who perform it. The thinking here is that you can’t have a law with no punishment, so punishing doctors (and not patients) at least satisfies the requirement of a functional law.
But let me test an assumption here. Do we really need penalties for every law?
Suicide was illegal in this country until 1968. And obviously we don’t punish dead people. So that was an example of a law with no penalty. So why did that law exist?
I assume suicide was illegal because lawmakers wanted to send a message about the value of life. We could do the same thing with abortion. Imagine a world in which abortion is illegal but there are no penalties on the books for either the doctors or patients. In that case, all you have is a statement from the government that life is valuable. I want that from my government. But I still want citizens to make the hard choices on their own.
As a general principle, we all might be better off if our government always took the side of maximizing human life while leaving room for private citizens to make tough choices as needed. A law without penalties does that.
This is different from the situations in which laws have penalties but the justice system collectively ignores them. That sends a mixed message and it also comes with a risk that police can change their minds tomorrow and start enforcing.
Let me give you another example in which you might want something to be illegal but with no penalties on the books. Doctor-assisted dying in the case of terminally ill patients just became legal in California, and I was part of the push to legalize it. But I would be equally happy (perhaps happier) if doctor-assisted suicide were illegal nationwide but no penalties were on the books. That would keep our government on the side of promoting life at all times while giving citizens the freedom to make the hard choices. That feels like a clean solution to me.
In my opinion, governments should always be pro-life because governments are not human beings. I don’t want to see any life-and-death decisions about humans coming from robots, corporate entities, or artificial government structures. Humans have to make decisions about human life, period. We don’t leave that up to software or bureaucracies.
An exception to that rule would be war, in which a Commander in Chief sends humans to die for the greater good. But even here we see that the structure of government defaults to a human – the Commander in Chief – the minute that life is on the line. And most people prefer that situation.
Likewise, in states with capital punishment, juries of human beings make the hard decision about life and death. We don’t leave that to a government rule or software.
I’ll say it again: Governments should always favor human life, even in the gray areas. But human beings often need the freedom to make hard choices about life. If the government makes abortion and doctor-assisted dying illegal, it sends a message about the priorities of government to protect life. But by being silent on penalties for those things, government would also allow citizens and their doctors to make the hard decisions.
Okay, you probably came here to see my Master Persuader opinion on Trump’s abortion controversy. To me it looked like a mistake, not a clever ploy. Chris Matthews asked a devious gottcha question and it worked. Trump walked right into it.
But keep in mind that Trump had no winning hand to play for abortion. He could either offend his base and not get nominated or he could poison his chances in the general election. He had two losing options. So what did he do?
He chose ambiguity and chaos. At least he is consistent that way.
In other words, he moved the topic to where he has home field advantage. He chose an extreme view (holding women legally accountable) and sucked all of the energy out of the room. But this too appears to be a losing hand because it worsens his reputation with women.
In movies, just when you think things can’t get any worse for the hero, things do get a lot worse. That just happened for Trump. No candidate for president can survive being labelled a sexist and a racist.
I have predicted the so-called third act for Trump since 2015. If he solves the third act, he wins the general election in a landslide.
Seems impossible, doesn’t it?
It certainly would be impossible for anyone but a Master Persuader. I’ll blog more on this topic in the coming weeks. But for now I’ll just say that if I were in Trump’s position I could easily solve it. And I’m not nearly as persuasive as Trump. So I like his odds, even though it looks impossible to you.