'Scare tactic': Pro-lifers refute Democrat's ad showing woman arrested for having an abortion

Police officers arrest a mother in a fictional campaign advertisement sponsored by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., during the 2022 midterm election season.
Police officers arrest a mother in a fictional campaign advertisement sponsored by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., during the 2022 midterm election season. | Screenshot: Twitter/Eric Swalwell

Pro-life advocates are pushing back against a video advertisement shared online this week by a Democratic member of Congress that they believe misleads the public about laws that ban or restrict abortion.

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif, shared a political advertisement on Twitter Monday night that shows police arresting a woman at her home in front of her children for having had an abortion. The video shows the mother sitting at the dinner table with her husband and two children before the police arrive to arrest her for a past abortion. 

As a police officer arrests the mother, he tells the husband that he and his partner are "just enforcing the law." The ad ends by telling viewers that "elections have consequences" and urges them to "vote Democrat" in the upcoming midterm elections. 

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"MAGA Republicans want women arrested for having an abortion. This is what that looks like," Swalwell's tweet reads. 

The advertisement appears to allude to some people's fears that women will face possible charges for having abortions in light of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade this summer. The court's ruling returned authority over abortion laws to the states, and several have enacted bans or restrictions. 

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, called the video a "scare tactic" in a Wednesday statement to The Christian Post. She believes the video seeks to "intimidate" women into voting for candidates who support abortion access. 

"The video shared by Rep. Swalwell is reprehensible," she wrote. "No law, state or federal, places penalties on a woman who gets an abortion." 

Tobias cited a letter NRLC spearheaded in May to elected officials, signed by over 70 pro-life organizations, outlining their opposition to prosecuting women for abortions and support for offering life-affirming resources instead.

Katie Glenn, state policy director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told CP in an interview that lawmakers have intentionally ensured that laws against abortion do not punish women. 

Glenn said that even before Roe legalized abortion nationwide, the law sought to punish abortionists and not women.

Abortionists sometimes sought to have the court treat the woman as their accomplice, she said, but the law only targeted the individuals profiting from the abortion. 

"And so, [state lawmakers] have been very intentional about drafting laws that do not prosecute the woman and are focused on the source of the abortion and on the person who is being enriched financially from that abortion," she said. 

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has a map on its website tracking abortion laws across the country since the court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. The map lists the different laws banning abortion at certain gestational stages or altogether, in addition to exceptions, such as life of the mother cases.

None of the laws listed mention prosecuting women for having had an illegal abortion. 

Glenn said that in scenarios where a woman is charged, such as the case in August involving a Nebraska mother who helped her daughter obtain an illegal chemical abortion, the charges are not simply because she had an abortion. 

The mother in that case was charged with "performing or attempting an abortion on a pregnancy at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor." Both the mom and her daughter were charged in July "with allegedly removing, concealing, or abandoning a dead human body," concealing the death of another person and false reporting. 

It is alleged that the mother and daughter tried to bury the body three times and also attempted to burn it after the second exhumation. 

The pro-choice research organization Guttmacher Institute contends that women had been prosecuted years before Roe was overturned for "self-inducing abortion under a variety of state statutes, ranging from fetal homicide to failure to report an abortion to the coroner."

"Recently, the issue has gained greater attention because of several well-publicized cases in which women were prosecuted — and even imprisoned — for self-inducing an abortion or being suspected of doing so," the organization states. "Despite claims from antiabortion advocates and lawmakers that abortion restrictions are intended to only criminalize providers of abortion care, some prosecutors have exercised their discretion under current state laws to penalize women who end their pregnancies on their own." 

Guttmacher reports, however, that "Women are not commonly charged in the United States for the crime of self-inducing an abortion, and they have rarely been convicted." The organization cited a case from the early 1990s in which a 19-year-old was charged after shooting herself in the abdomen to end her pregnancy. Her case went to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled that established U.S. legal precedent precluded a woman from being prosecuted in the death of her own fetus.

Guttmacher also states that there have been at least a half dozen U.S. cases where women have been arrested and charged for attempting to "self-induce an abortion using illicitly obtained abortifacients."

"For instance, in 2004, one woman in South Carolina was charged with illegal abortion and failure to report the abortion to the coroner after using an abortifacient. In a 2007 case in Massachusetts, a woman was charged with illegal procurement of a miscarriage; however, because of the state's inability to assess whether the fetus met its definition of viability at the time of the abortion, she was not charged with murder," Guttmacher reports. 

"In Idaho in 2011, a woman was charged with unlawful abortion and the prosecutor threatened to charge her under the state's newly enacted 20-week ban on abortion. In a case in Pennsylvania in 2013, a mother who had ordered abortifacients off the Internet for her daughter was reported by hospital staff after they sought medical attention for side effects; she was eventually charged with 'providing abortion without a medical license, dispensing drugs without being a pharmacist, assault and endangering the welfare of a child.'"

In 2015, a Georgia woman was charged with murder after giving birth on her way to the hospital after taking abortion-inducing drugs she ordered off the internet.

"Conviction and punishments varied in these recorded cases," Guttmacher reports. "In the South Carolina and Pennsylvania cases, both women were convicted; the woman in South Carolina was sentenced to jail time and a fine, but was let out on time served, while the Pennsylvania woman began a 9–18-month jail sentence in September 2014. In Massachusetts, the defendant was given probation and ordered to attend counseling. In the Idaho case, the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. The murder charges were eventually dropped in the Georgia case as well, although the woman is still facing a misdemeanor charge of possession of a dangerous drug."

Glenn believes that claims from people like Swalwell will go away as long as pro-life lawmakers continue to be clear about the content of laws banning or restricting abortion. 

"We encourage our lawmakers to be very clear about why they're pro-life and why they are supporting pro-life policies in their state and how it's to help women and families, not to hurt them," Glenn said. 

"All of the misinformation that they've been talking about, that women are going to be arrested, that women are going to be denied lifesaving care? As that doesn't pan out and people realize that was a lot of bluster, they won't buy it, and the ads are going to fall flat."

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