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Anti-abortion rights groups say they don't support criminalizing abortion patients


Opponents of abortion rights often describe the procedure as, quote, "taking a human life" or even as, quote, "murder." If Roe v. Wade is overturned, some of them would like to see state laws reflect that view. But now other anti-abortion rights groups are pushing back with an open letter to state lawmakers across the country, saying that they do not support punishing patients who seek abortions. NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon covers abortion rights policy and joins us now. Hi, Sarah.


CHANG: OK, so tell us more about this open letter. What does it say exactly?

MCCAMMON: Well, it comes from a coalition of anti-abortion rights groups. And they say, quote, "We state unequivocally that any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women is not pro-life, and we stand firmly opposed to such efforts." So the letter was organized by the National Right to Life Committee. And their president, Carol Tobias, told me she thinks abortion bans should target doctors who perform abortions.

CAROL TOBIAS: He or she knows exactly what they're doing. And if they're breaking the law, they should be held accountable. But we don't put women in that category.

CHANG: Interesting. So what is prompting them to speak out about this? Like, what's the goal here?

MCCAMMON: Well, last week's leak of a draft opinion that would overturn Roe has raised the stakes here because now state lawmakers could soon be empowered to ban abortion and really set penalties for violating those laws. So the movement appears to be on the cusp of getting what they've been pushing for for decades. But they have to be mindful of public opinion. Already, a majority of Americans support keeping Roe v Wade intact. And when it comes to actually punishing people for illegal abortions, a recent poll from the Pew Center found that among those who favor prohibiting abortion, there is less support for punishing patients than health care providers in those situations. And that's something that Republicans may be thinking about heading into the midterms. Democrats already are hitting this messaging hard that overturning Roe would mean putting both doctors and patients in jail. And you may recall that this issue has come up before, Ailsa. Former President Trump during the 2016 campaign said he would support punishing women who had abortions, and he wound up having to walk that back.

CHANG: Right. Well, this idea - punish providers, not women seeking abortions - is there a consensus about this idea among abortion rights opponents?

MCCAMMON: Well, I would just point out, first of all, that most of the major national groups that oppose abortion rights signed this letter, making clear they don't support that. But there are those in the movement who do - they believe abortion is tantamount to murder and should be treated as such. One of them is Bradley Pierce with the Foundation to Abolish Abortion. He's based in Texas, and he's been drafting legislation that has been proposed in Louisiana and that he's promoting elsewhere to prohibit abortion from the moment of fertilization and to classify it as a homicide. Now, I talked to Pierce earlier this week, and he said that he thinks anyone who participates in abortion - and that includes the patient - should be subject to potential criminal charges.

BRADLEY PIERCE: Yeah, I mean, it's really very simple legislation. There's already laws on the books of Louisiana and every other state that prohibits homicide. And so HB 813 simply takes the laws that already protect people who are born and protects people who are not yet born from the moment of fertilization.

MCCAMMON: And, Ailsa, that legislation is facing significant pushback in Louisiana, both from Republicans and the governor, John Bel Edwards, who describes himself as a pro-life Democrat. He issued a statement condemning that proposal and calling it radical.

CHANG: Well, how are abortion rights advocates responding to this letter. Like does this give them - I don't know - like, some small amount of reassurance to hear that some abortion rights opponents argue against penalizing patients?

MCCAMMON: Not really. I talked to Rupali Sharma, the senior counsel with The Lawyering Project, which is a reproductive rights legal advocacy group. And Sharma says that even without putting patients in jail, abortion bans still have significant implications for their health and their lives.

RUPALI SHARMA: I do, unfortunately, think it's besides the point whether they're calling for explicit criminalization or not because when you are supporting medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion, including abortion bans, you are necessarily supporting the surveillance and targeting and, you know, persecution of pregnant people.

MCCAMMON: And she says this is all a distraction from the larger picture.

CHANG: That is NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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