The Exceptions Lie
Abortion ban exceptions aren't real. And Republicans know it.
Last week, Texas Republicans hinted that they’d be open to changing the state’s total-abortion ban to include rape and incest exceptions. In a panel discussion with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said that lawmakers might revise the ban both because of the lack of exceptions, and to make it easier for doctors to treat miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. At the same TribFest event, state Sen. Robert Nichols said that if he had a chance to vote for a rape exception, he would.
Republicans in other anti-abortion states are doing the same: Some are giving viral speeches about the importance of supporting the most vulnerable women and girls, while others cry for the cameras or run campaign ads ensuring voters that despite past comments they will absolutely, of course, support rape and incest exceptions.
This shift in Republican messaging has mostly been framed by the media as a political softening sparked by polls showing how incredibly unpopular abortion bans are. That’s partly accurate, but it doesn’t come close to the whole story.
The truth is that abortion exceptions are a lie: A political tool that’s more about helping Republicans’ public image than making abortion accessible to victims.
Yes, conservative politicians are spooked by voter outrage—but we need to remember that they knew this backlash was coming. For more than twenty years, more than 60 percent of Americans have opposed overturning Roe. Even as far back as 1989, more than half of the country didn’t want to see Roe done away with.
Understanding that Republicans expected a huge public outcry shines a new light on their supposed-‘softening’ on abortion. By passing total abortion bans, Republicans are giving themselves the opportunity to add in exceptions later, making it seem as if they’ve ‘compromised’ on the issue.
This strategy does two important things for conservatives: First, it makes them seem (they hope) more empathetic to women. Consider what Texas Sen. Nichols said when announcing he’d vote for a rape exception: “I think instead of telling us telling women what to do, we should show our support for women of this state.” If you didn’t know the context, it would sound downright feminist! The other benefit to supporting extreme bans just to eventually add in exceptions is that conservatives can frame it as a loss—even as they roll back women’s rights 50 years.
And their 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.
Here’s the worst part: The bone they’re throwing women is completely useless. Exceptions for rape and incest—even the exceptions for the health and life of the pregnant person—are exemptions in name only.
After all, just look at what’s happening in Mississippi; despite the state’s abortion ban including a rape exception, doctors there are too afraid to provide victims with care. That isn’t an accident—it’s by design. Exceptions are deliberately vague and narrowly defined so that it’s near-impossible to use them.
Most rape exceptions, like the ones in Georgia and Mississippi, for example, require victims to report their attack to law enforcement before they can qualify for an abortion. But more than 2 out of 3 victims don’t report their assaults. Other exceptions, like the one currently being debated in South Carolina, require victims not just to report their attack, but to have an abortion in the earliest days of their pregnancy. It’s a limitation that’s especially difficult for those who need to raise money for an abortion, take days off of work, or—for women and girls who have been traumatized—come to terms with the fact that they’re pregnant at all.
When you add in a culture that largely disbelieves women and girls about sexual violence, the toothlessness of rape and incest exceptions becomes even more clear.
Then there are the criminal consequences for doctors who provide abortions—often years in prison and the loss of your medical license. How many doctors do you think are willing to risk such a thing? (If Mississippi is any indication, the answer is zero.)
We’ve already seen, through horror story after horror story, how impossible it’s been for women to avail themselves of exceptions for health and life. Women carrying fetuses without skulls, women with burst ectopic pregnancies and severely failing health all denied the care they needed. Do we really believe that if women are unable to use exceptions meant to save their lives, that any will be able to utilize a rape and incest exception?
I don’t doubt that conservatives disagree on abortion laws, or that the lawmakers who’ve walked back their most extreme positions have been influenced by polls. But it’s a mistake to believe that Republicans are suddenly shocked by the public outrage or are aimlessly running scared. They’re using this moment deliberately and strategically—some to convince Americans that they’re becoming more moderate on the issue, others to pretend that exceptions added in to abortion bans are an unexpected loss.
Republicans believe exceptions will satiate voters. It’s our job to remind them that there’s no such thing as a ‘compromise’ on our freedom—especially when it’s all lie.