WASHINGTON — Brace yourselves, readers. I write today in defense of Kevin Williamson, with whom I could not disagree more.
Williamson, if you haven’t heard of him, is a relentlessly, seemingly compulsively provocative conservative writer who was hired away from National Review by The Atlantic to help staff its new opinions roster. That selection ignited a two-week firestorm over Williamson’s writings and other commentary, including a tweet in which Williamson asserted that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide” and that women who have abortions should therefore be subjected to the death penalty, preferably by hanging.
Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg initially defended Williamson, saying that while “I don’t think anyone should try to defend Kevin’s most horrible tweet, … I don’t think that taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice.”
On Thursday, after Mediamatters.org surfaced a podcast in which Williamson expanded on his hang-the-women approach, Goldberg announced that it was time to part ways. Williamson’s words, he said, run “contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”
I’m not here to weigh in on The Atlantic’s decision. Goldberg has been my friend for three decades, so backing him wouldn’t be credible and criticizing him wouldn’t be attractive.
My point, instead, is about the actual content of Williamson’s remarks. They are shocking and brutal, deliberately so, and I understand why, if you are a woman who supports abortion rights, you might not want him sitting at the adjoining cubicle. But what Williamson said is also, from his point of view, intellectually honest, which is more than can be said for many who oppose abortion rights.
To be clear, I believe that women have the absolute right, until the fetus is viable, to determine whether to terminate a pregnancy. But I recognize, and respect, that other people believe that human life begins at the moment of conception. From that point of view, abortion is tantamount to murder, which introduces the question of whether and how the person procuring the procedure should be punished.
President Trump blundered into this minefield during his campaign, when, pressed by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews at a March 2016 town hall, he said that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions. Intellectually consistent, but of course Trump had to quickly backtrack to the more politically acceptable party line: “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”
Politically acceptable is not the Williamson way. Of abortion, he said in a September 2014 podcast, “I think in some ways it’s worse than your typical murder. I mean, it’s absolutely premeditated … It’s something that’s performed against the most vulnerable sort of people. And that’s the sort of thing we generally take into account in the sentencing of other murder cases. You know, murdering a 4-year-old kid, is not the same as killing a 21-year-old guy.”
As to the punishment, Williamson said, “I’m absolutely willing to see abortion treated like a regular homicide under the criminal code.” Which meant, in Williamson’s typically macho language, treating it as a hanging offense. “I’m kind of squishy about capital punishment in general,” he noted, “but I’ve got a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment. I tend to think that things like lethal injection are a little too antiseptic.”
Look, Williamson’s attitude is extreme bordering on — OK, sauntering way across the border to — offensive. But it is, at least, intellectually honest. In some ways, it is more feminist than the regular anti-abortion and Republican party line, which is, as Trump ultimately did, to paint the woman as hapless victim, not mature, responsible actor.
In contrast to Williamson, the GOP and anti-abortion activists prefer to avoid the implications of their asserted conviction that life begins at the moment of conception. If that were their core, unshakeable belief, many Republican politicians would not endorse an exception to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. If that were their core, unshakeable belief, they would consider, as does Williamson, punishing at least some women who choose to terminate their pregnancies.
Think about Williamson’s hypothetical example of someone murdering a 4-year-old. The murderer would be prosecuted and, unless found not guilty by reason of insanity, punished, if not hanged. If human life begins at conception, what — other than unwillingness to confront the politically untenable implications of that conviction — justifies the failure to act against mothers who, by this understanding, murder their unborn babies?