A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a
latae sententiae excommunication.
(1983 Code of Canon Law, sec. 1398)
On Thursday, March 30, 2016, Nassua County, NY police found 20-year-old Sharon Seudat bleeding profusely. After transporting her to the emergency room and learning that a pregnancy was involved, the police searched the home. They found a dead newborn – an infant girl – sealed into a black plastic bag. Seudat has been charged with murder and is being held pending a $750,000 bond.
Only one day earlier, on March 29, during a town hall meeting moderated by “Hardball” questioner Chris Matthews, this flurried exchange occurred with presidential candidate, Donald Trump:
MATTHEWS: I never understood the pro-life position.
TRUMP: Well, a lot of people do understand.
MATTHEWS: I never understood it. Because I understand the principle, it’s human life as people see it.
TRUMP: Which it is.
MATTHEWS: But what crime is it?
TRUMP: Well, it’s human life.
MATTHEWS: No, should the woman be punished for having an abortion?
MATTHEWS: This is not something you can dodge.
TRUMP: It’s a — no, no…
MATTHEWS: If you say abortion is a crime or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under law. Should abortion be punished?
TRUMP: Well, people in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans would say, “yes, they should be punished.”
MATTHEWS: How about you?
TRUMP: I would say that it’s a very serious problem. And it’s a problem that we have to decide on. It’s very hard.
. . . .
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.
MATTHEWS: Why not?
TRUMP: I don’t know.
MATTHEWS: You take positions on everything else.
TRUMP: Because I don’t want to — I frankly, I do take positions on everything else. It’s a very complicated position.
Unlike their non-reaction to young mothers criminally charged when they murder their newborns, many pro-lifers issued blistering attacks on candidate Trump for hesitantly approving a penalty for aborting mothers.
An exemplary list of pro-life and anti-Trump proclamations appears here: the basic theme being that women who kill their unborn “deserve” compassion, love, understanding, empowerment, support, mercy, etc. – but never justice or accountability.
As Robert George summarized in First Things: “Most pro-lifers and the entire mainstream pro-life movement oppose, and have always opposed, punishing women who seek abortions.”
Sadly, most pro-lifers did not analyze the context of Trump’s blunder or Catholic Matthew’s obtuse defense of abortion; nor did they embrace Trump’s “yeah” as a teaching moment.
Yet, a teachable moment it was. Trump most certainly – and many of his followers – rank among the least experienced and knowledgeable of the nuances and divisiveness of the pro-life, pro-choice subculture. This vacuum could have created educational opportunity but only if Mr. Trump and his supporters were not summarily dismissed by established pro-lifers as “not one of us.”
It is not obvious to many people why pro-lifers insist that a woman who finds a way to kill her unborn child – whether legal or illegal, whether procured or self-induced – should never be punished. Is this merely a necessary strategy, critical to combat pro-life “opponents” who would “weaken the pro-life cause by tarring pro-lifers as punitive, vindictive people who would send women . . . to prison”?
In fact, there is an interesting and substantial legal history of restraint in prosecuting women who procure illegal abortions in favor of convicting illegal abortion providers, like the restraint shown in prosecuting prostitutes in favor of convicting pimps.
But this history and context were notably missing in pro-life reaction to Trump’s remarks. I found no calls, for example, for education or reasoned discussion in my pro-life Facebook community. Rather, I read that Trump is “toxic” and that, were I to suggest a woman be held accountable for aborting her unborn, I’d be summarily “unfriended.”
Trump has a knack for triggering strong, sometimes virulent, response – even from Catholics who, one would have hoped, might embrace an opportunity for charity, education and dialogue. Catholics might have embraced Trump’s confused, forced response for its worth: why does the Pro-life Establishment insist that women who intentionally abort are “victims” of their own decision?
Catholics’ canonical law imposes the single most severe canonical penalty – an automatic excommunication from the Church – upon a woman for the intentional, voluntary inducing, procuring, or participating in the death of her unborn child.
Is it unfair to expect that Catholics, whose law holds a mother accountable for killing her unborn child, might entertain Trump’s brief and awkward proposition as both a reasonable and moral proposition worthy of response?
Which brings us back to 20-year-old Ms. Seudat – charged with murder of her newborn daughter as tests revealed the child had drawn breath before Ms. Seudat (allegedly) suffocated her. Poor Ms. Seudat missed by only seconds pro-lifer’s calls for compassion, love, understanding, empowerment, support, mercy, etc. If only her baby had not drawn a breath – that breath which transformed Ms. Seudat from a victim to a responsible adult party, accountable at law for her decisions and actions.
Post Script: Though largely disregarded, Trump’s later confessed confusion, clarifications and policy statements immediately fell in line with established pro-life policy that all women who abort their unborn child are victims, like the child itself.