Discover more from Abortion, Every Day
Abortion Exceptions Don't Exist
The GOP's imaginary compromise
As 2024 approaches, Republicans are struggling with how to defend abortion bans to the American people. Polls continue to show that the laws are deeply unpopular, and support for abortion rights is at the highest it’s ever been in the country’s history. It’s not so easy to talk up legislation that the vast majority of voters oppose—but conservative lawmakers and strategists think they may have the answer: Exceptions.
The only thing that Americans want more than broad access to abortion is access to abortion for sexual violence victims and those whose health and lives are in danger. The polling is downright astronomical—even in red states, even among Republicans. And so it makes sense that conservatives would focus on exceptions; they desperately need an abortion stance that’s popular.
Best of all for the GOP, exceptions aren’t real. They’re deliberately designed to be unusable. So when Republicans announce their support for so-called exceptions—loudly proclaiming that they’re willing to meet in the middle—they’re presenting a compromise that doesn’t actually exist. For them, it’s a win-win.
Inexplicably, Democrats have spent little time pointing out that exceptions aren’t real—even though they have all the proof they need.
Since Roe was overturned, horror story after horror story has come out of states with ‘exceptions’ to their bans. A woman in Texas going septic, a Missouri woman with a doomed and deadly pregnancy, a 10 year-old rape victim in Ohio. All lived in states where their circumstances should have qualified them for abortions, yet none were able to access care. One woman in Louisiana even had a fetus with a fatal condition that was specifically listed in the state’s exceptions, yet had to leave her home state for an abortion.
And while Republican legislators claim that they are ‘clarifying’ the laws, abortion bans will always be written so that no one can access care. Because the purpose of exceptions was never about allowing abortion in certain cases—but to make Republicans look better. As the Guttmacher Institute’s Elizabeth Nash says, “Exceptions function mainly as PR tools to make abortion bans seem less cruel than they are and distract from the inhumanity of the ban itself.”
They also allow Republicans to feign concession while giving up nothing. From a column I wrote late last year, “The Exceptions Lie”:
“[T]heir game plan is already working. Republicans have decimated Roe and banned abortions in fourteen states, with eight others battling their bans out in court.* Yet the mainstream media has framed the possibility of rape and incest exceptions as a conservative failure, saying their true political hopes as 'imploding.' Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers who come out for exceptions are being publicly lauded, their speeches going viral and their image (at least somewhat) improved.” *This was written in Sept 2022, for an updated list of states where abortion is banned, click here.
In a moment when Americans so strongly oppose abortion bans, Republicans’ ability to seem as if they’re giving something up is incredibly important.
The other vital, though less-discussed, tactic behind supporting exceptions is that it allows the GOP to tap into American misogyny. Because while some voters may support them out of empathy or understanding, the very idea of exceptions is built on the notion that some women deserve care while others don’t. Those who have sex willingly are bad girls who should be punished; those who were forced, or who are sick, get a reprieve.
In fact, exceptions are where the anti-abortion movement’s deep hatred for women becomes irrefutable. If abortion is murder, why would the circumstances of pregnancy matter at all? The answer is the same reason that so many conservative lawmakers want to ban abortion, but not common IVF practices where unused embryos are discarded. Those who adhere to traditional gender norms—in this case, women trying to become mothers—don’t need to be punished.
When else is healthcare withheld from those who don’t ‘deserve’ it? Even those who believe abortion is the ending of a life don’t advocate that drunk drivers, for example, be forced to give up a vital organ to keep their accident victims alive. But when it comes to women, following certain (sexist) ethical rules can determine whether or not we’re allowed care.
The unfortunate truth is that despite abortion rights’ incredible popularity, America is still misogynist. And while abortion bans impact anyone with the ability to get pregnant, those who want to wield these laws as a weapon are primarily interested in hurting women and girls.
So when Republicans support exceptions, they’re not just painting themselves as reasonable on the issue—they’re giving Americans the opportunity to feel good about only allowing abortions for the women who ‘deserve’ them. It’s an insidious strategy from start to finish.
That’s why it’s so important that Democrats call out the conservative focus on exceptions loudly and often: Not just because they’re fake and unusable, but because if they don’t, they’re ceding perhaps our most important abortion rights message and value: Forcing anyone to be pregnant for any reason is deeply wrong.
The good news is that the GOP’s focus on exceptions, which we’ll see more and more of as we get closer to 2024, comes from a place of weakness. In the same way that Republicans tried to sell state-level 12-week bans as ‘reasonable, commonsense’ legislation—the same messaging they’re now using to propose a 15-week national ban—talking about exceptions is an implicit admission that Americans oppose their agenda.
That’s why the anti-abortion movement is replacing the word ‘ban’ with ‘consensus’, and why they’re claiming that any anti-abortion legislation with an exception isn’t a ban at all. They desperately need voters to believe that supporting a Republican candidate or an anti-choice policy is not a vote for a total abortion ban—but a reasonable, moderate policy that most Americans agree on.
If the GOP can convince voters of that lie, they’ll get exactly what they want: Extreme abortion bans that don’t allow anyone care. (And good PR, to boot.) It’s our job to ensure that doesn’t happen.
The consequences of abortion bans—even those with ‘exceptions’—are on full display every single day. We have the truth on our side, so let’s use it.
The best way to support Abortion, Every Day and more columns like this one is by signing up for a paid subscription: