Newsflash: Women are already punished for their reproductive choices

Mar 31, 2016 at 2:20 p.m. ET
Image: Drew Angerer/Stringer/Getty Images News

Add another quote to your list of outrageous things Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said. In an interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, he said women should be punished for having abortions. Well, guess what, Mr. Trump — for once you're ahead of the curve, because it turns out women are already being punished for many of their sexual choices, including pregnancy and abortion.

Trump later backpedaled.

But does his retraction even matter at this point? Aside from the fact that Trump made yet another shocking statement and the fact that we're all feeding into his reality-show media strategy by talking about this, he did bring up an important point, albeit one he likely didn't intend: Women are already punished for their reproductive choices, a fact I saw over and over and over again in my jobs as a rape crisis counselor and at a battered women's clinic.

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I spent two years trying to help women in almost every conceivable horrible situation, and if one thing was clear, it was that no matter what choices they made, they were being punished. I watched women who'd been raped, abused, beaten, tortured — including some women who'd attempted suicide to escape their desperate situations — make the most heart-wrenchingly impossible decisions, knowing they'd be punished no matter what they decided. And that's not even including the guilt they punished themselves with, the worries and what-ifs.

I saw teens who decided to keep a baby punished with economic hardship and shamed by their families. I also saw teens who gave up a baby for adoption punished with shame and regret.

I saw women who'd given birth in "ideal" situations (married, stable, healthy) punished economically by losing money, career advancements and retirement accounts. And this happened to some extent regardless of whether they chose to stay home and care for the children or if they chose to return to work.

I saw women who were sexually assaulted and then punished for doing something as minor as drinking at the wrong party, hence being held responsible for the crime against their own bodies.

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I saw women forced to decide whether they wanted to keep a pregnancy that resulted from rape. If they said yes, they were punished with daily reminders of their trauma. If they said no, they were punished with pain and social stigma.

I saw college girls punished for being sexually active, called sluts while the men they slept with got high-fives.

I saw women fleeing abusive relationships who had their own fertility used against them, with partners who impregnated them as an attempt to continue to keep them weak and dependent.

I saw gay and queer women punished for simply having sexuality.

I saw women who were sex workers punished in innumerable ways, both physically and mentally, for doing a job that many were forced into in the first place.

And I saw children, both born and unborn, punished for the atrocities foisted on their mothers. Because when the mother suffers, so does the child. Always.

I'm not saying I have all the answers or that any situation — particularly when it comes to things dealing with our sexuality, pregnancy and abortion — is black and white. Almost nothing, I discovered, fits tidily into a box of right or wrong. But one thing is quite clear: You don't have to punish women, because we already are.