The Shifting Dynamics Around Rape and Incest Exceptions to Abortion Bans

As divisive as the issue of abortion is in American politics, one point of broad, longstanding agreement has been exceptions for cases of rape and incest in laws restricting abortion. Arguments for such exceptions used to be commonplace even in pro-life policies and the rhetoric of pro-life politicians: Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump expressed their support. The Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortion, allows it for abortions in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother. 

But the political dynamics surrounding rape and incest exceptions have been shifting for a while, a trend made more obvious since the Supreme Court ruling that reversed Roe v. Wade turned a philosophical matter into a practical one. Many newer state-level abortion bans eschew these exceptions. Louisiana passed a law in June that did not include rape or incest exceptions. Pro-life Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards expressed disappointment that there were no exceptions but signed his state’s bill anyway. Arkansas’ Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has shared similar sentiments about a law he signed three years ago that went into effect after the Dobbs ruling. Meanwhile, Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has called for the elimination of these exceptions, and politicians like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem have stood behind their state’s lack of such exceptions. 

Students for Life, a pro-life advocacy group with chapters on more than 1,200 campuses nationwide, has been in the vanguard of this change. “Your humanity doesn’t change with the circumstances of your conception,” says Kristan Hawkins, the group’s president. “You are valuable regardless of how you came into existence, or what your father did the night of your conception.” Pro-life activists conceived in rape have long made a similar argument. As Rebecca Kiessling put it in a conversation with then-presidential hopeful Rick Perry, “When you make that rape exception, it’s like you’re saying to me that I deserved the death penalty for the crimes of my father.”

Soon, only seven states will have laws that ban or restrict abortions but with explicit exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape: Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming. If Iowa’s state courts allow for its six-week abortion ban to take effect, it will join this group. All but one of these–Mississippi–also have an exception for pregnancies resulting from incest. Six other states and the District of Columbia allow unrestricted abortion; 10 ban abortion entirely and limit exceptions to some combination of life and health endangerment and fetal anomalies; and the rest of the states begin restricting abortion at some set period of gestation, and do not have a rape or incest exception afterward. (One of Oklahoma’s five contradictory abortion restrictions includes rape and incest exceptions, but none of the others do; even the attorney general’s office was unclear which would take precedence, but, presumably, an abortion legal under the law with exceptions could be prosecuted under one of the laws without.)

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