The past week saw US presidential candidate Donald Trump at the center of another controversy, this time related to the issue of abortion. In an exchange with MSNBC host Chris Matthews during a Town Hall in Wisconsin, Trump responded to Matthews’ question, “Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?,” by saying, “The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.” Matthews asked a clarifying question, “For the woman?” To which Trump answered, “Yes, there has to be some form.”
As a result of his remarks, Trump has come under fire from both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. On the pro-choice side, critics have been quick to seize on Trump’s statement as a correct logical inference of the pro-life position and, therefore, a good reason to reject pro-life arguments in favor of continuing support for Roe v. Wade. As pro-choice writer Jill Filipovic put it, “If abortion is murder, then women who have them are criminals – right?,” and further, “When you make something illegal, it comes with penalties – this is how criminal law works.”
Many pro-life advocates have moved to distance themselves from Trump’s comments, with one abortion opponent stating categorically, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion.” Marjorie Dannenfelser, another pro-life supporter, responding to Trump’s remarks said, “But let us be clear: punishment is solely for the abortionist who profits off the destruction of one life and the grave wounding of another.”
Matthews’ question should be of interest to anyone involved in the abortion debate, especially to Christians, whose faith implies respect for both life, law and logic. With that in mind, what should Trump have said in response to Matthews’ question? The best option open to Trump, and he would have been entirely within his right to do this, would have been for him to punt. Why is this? Because Matthews asked the question of Trump as one, “running for president of the United States [who] will be chief executive of the United States.” But the Federal government has no constitutional role in the abortion debate. As Ron Paul observed,
[T]he Constitution says nothing about abortion, murder, manslaughter, or any other acts of violence. There are only four crimes listed in the Constitution: counterfeiting, piracy, treason, and slavery. Criminal and civil laws were deliberately left to the states (Liberty Defined, 2).
But underlying both Matthews’ question and Trump’s response appears to be the assumption that abortion does, in fact, properly fall within the jurisdiction of the federal courts. But if there is no mention of abortion in the Constitution itself, it is hard to see any reason for the federal courts to have jurisdiction on the matter of abortion.
Instead of allowing himself to be dragged into Matthews’ trap, Trump could have sidestepped the issue by stating he would like to see jurisdiction concerning abortion returned to the states. This can be done, “with a majority vote in Congress and the signature of the President” (Liberty Defined, 7). This approach would have allowed Trump honestly to position himself both as an opponent of Rove v. Wade and an advocate of limited, constitutional government. It would also have saved him a good deal of embarrassment and backtracking.