Anti-Abortion-Rights Groups Push GOP To Rethink Rape And Incest Exceptions

May 22, 2019

Updated at 2:50 p.m. ET

Opponents of abortion rights have a long history of supporting abortion bans with three major exceptions: when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when a woman’s life is at risk.

But, fueled by momentum from the passage of a restrictive abortion law in Alabama, a coalition of anti-abortion-rights groups released a letter Wednesday asking Republican officials to “reconsider decades-old talking points” on exceptions to such laws.

“We understand that issues like rape and incest are difficult topics to tackle; nevertheless, it is our view that the value of human life is not determined by the circumstances of one’s conception or birth,” said a draft of the letter provided to NPR by Students for Life of America, which led the effort.

The letter, which is addressed to Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, goes on: “A child conceived in rape is still a child. We don’t blame children for other matters outside their control. Why should we do so here?”

The document praises Alabama’s law, which prohibits abortion at all stages of pregnancy unless a woman’s life is threatened. It would send doctors convicted of violating the law to prison for up to 99 years. That law, like several other early bans passed this year, has not yet taken effect.

In an interview, Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins said she hopes to see more Republican lawmakers support abortion bans that do not include exceptions for rape and incest.

“I think it’s time to start having the conversation,” Hawkins said. “There is a fear in the Republican Party about talking about rape at all … But I don’t think it’s something we should be afraid of.”

Hawkins noted that some Republicans are hesitant to wade into the subject because of the memory of former Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, who bungled the issue during his 2012 Senate campaign, when he falsely claimed that because of female biology, a pregnancy would be unlikely in cases of what he described as a “legitimate rape.”

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Akin said. He went on to lose the race.

But Hawkins said she and others in the movement now see a new opportunity to push for near-total abortion bans.

That position is at odds with statements in recent days by several leading Republicans, including RNC Chairwoman McDaniel, who’ve expressed opposition to Alabama’s law because of its lack of exceptions.

“Personally, I would have the exceptions,” McDaniel told CNN. “That’s my personal belief. But we are a party that is a broad tent.”

President Trump also appeared to distance himself from laws like Alabama’s, tweeting, “As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions – Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan.”

As The Washington Post has noted, former President Ronald Reagan’s positions on abortion shifted throughout his political career, and as California’s governor in the 1960s, he signed what was then seen as a liberal abortion law.

The official GOP platform generally takes an anti-abortion-rights position, and does not spell out exceptions for rape or incest.

But many leading Republicans who oppose abortion rights have historically allowed for those exceptions, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who studies the history of reproductive rights.

Abandoning that position “would mark a major shift in the public terms of debate,” Ziegler said in an e-mail. “We are seeing a major bid for strategic power being made by absolutists.”

Travis Weber, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council, who signed the letter, said he sees momentum for more restrictive abortion laws.

“There is no time like now to continue to conversation about protecting all human life, no matter how defenseless and helpless,” Weber wrote in a message.

Other signers of the letter urging Republicans to rethink their messaging on rape and incest exceptions include leaders of March for Life, Operation Rescue, Priests for Life and Abby Johnson – a former Planned Parenthood director who now leads an organization that encourages clinic workers to leave their jobs.

“Now is the time for those who value the sanctity of human life to be consistent in our beliefs and policies,” Johnson said in a statement. “Either we believe that all life has infinite value and worth, or we don’t.”

But other leading anti-abortion-rights groups did not sign the letter, among them the Susan B. Anthony List, which has played an influential role in lobbying Trump to appoint conservative judges. In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Mallory Quigley said the organization strongly supports Alabama’s law and called it and other recently-passed abortion restrictions an “inspiration.” She declined to comment specifically on why the group chose not to sign.

Steve Aden of Americans United for Life said he had not seen the document but expressed skepticism about removing rape and incest exceptions.

“The pro-life movement, state by state, has made real progress in getting the Supreme Court and the state legislatures to see that Roe should be reconsidered, but I don’t see the need or the wisdom of these absolutist positions,” Aden said, referring to the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

The letter to McDaniel comes as Charlotte Pence, the daughter of Vice President Pence, penned an op-ed in The Washington Times expressing support for Alabama’s law. “Personally, I would not encourage a friend to get an abortion if she suffered the horrendous evil of rape or incest because I care about her child — and her. I do not believe abortion provides healing,” she writes.

Republican pollster and strategist Glen Bolger said the current debates over abortion – including efforts in states like New York to expand abortion rights – mark the end of what he describes as “a long-time undeclared truce” on abortion. In an email, Bolger said advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are pushing harder, with many reproductive rights groups working to remove abortion restrictions and many abortion rights opponents promoting bans with virtually no exceptions.

“It is risky strategy,” Bolger said, because Americans’ views on abortion are more nuanced than many of the current proposals reflect. More than three-quarters, 77 percent, support legal abortion in the first trimester in cases of rape and incest, according to a Gallup survey.

“Any time you try to lead the public where they are not willing to go, it can boomerang politically,” Bolger said.

In response to the letter, Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America said abortion-rights opponents have always debated “just how hard to push to criminalize abortion, and Georgia and Alabama show that the radical fringe is winning. But the fact remains that the entire anti-choice movement is dangerously out of step with the mainstream pulse of the country.” She also blamed Trump for creating “the conditions for the hard-right turn on reproductive rights.”

Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund said in a statement that “any ban on access to safe, legal abortion risks women’s lives, and is an attack on our fundamental human rights.”

“People across America are horrified,” she continued. “And we at Planned Parenthood will continue to stand up and speak out against politicians trying to play politics with women’s lives.”

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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