The XX Factor

Rape Exceptions Don’t Work

Pro-choice protesters in Peru, where abortion is banned with built-in, but often ignored, exceptions

Photo by Raul Garcia Pereira/AFP/Getty Images

Irin Carmon has an excellent piece at Salon decrying, in light of the Akin controversy, the entire discourse around “rape exceptions.” It is frustrating the way that many liberal pundits accept the notion that there’s something more moderate about someone who wants to ban abortion but make exceptions for rape. Believing that rape is a “legitimate” reason to abort may make you slightly less horrible than Todd Akin, but you’re still a misogynist who thinks that having sex requires forced childbirth as punishment.

Carmon also points out that when rape exceptions have been employed in the U.S., they don’t work. The Hyde Amendment bans federal funding for abortion, with a rape exception, but surprisingly few women that are eligible for government-subsidized abortions actually get the funding they’re entitled to.

And what if we were to enact a widespread ban on abortion, with the incest and rape exceptions? The general ban on abortion would mean that finding doctors and clinics who can and are willing to offer the service under the narrow restrictions would become nearly impossible. It’s not about the skills so much as it would be the environment of fear. If you can get thrown in jail for performing an illegal abortion, you’re going to err on the side of not allowing any abortions at all. Sure, this rape victim in front of you seems like she has a legal claim to abortion, but what if some grandstanding prosecutor down the line decides to challenge her story and therefore charge you with a crime?

These aren’t just hypothetical questions. Throughout Latin America, there are abortion bans that have exceptions built in for certain emergencies, but women who legally qualify for the exceptions find that no one is willing to put their necks out for them. The Center for Reproductive Rights has a number of cases of women being denied abortions that should be legal under the exceptions. The stories are heartbreaking. 

L.C. [13 years old] attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of a building next door to her house. Neighbors discovered her and rushed her to the hospital. But even though doctors concluded that her spine needed to be realigned immediately—and even though abortion in Peru is legal where the mother’s health and life are at risk—they refused to operate on L.C. because she was pregnant….. 
Paulina was 13 years old when she was raped in 1999 and subsequently denied a legally permitted abortion by state health and law enforcement officials….. K.L., a 17-year-old, was pregnant with an anencephalic fetus. Although Peruvian abortion law permits abortion when the life or health of the mother is in danger, K.L. was denied an abortion and had to deliver the baby and breastfeed her for the four days she survived.

Here is a video where L.C., who will have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life because she was denied her legal abortion, explains her story of rape, attempted suicide and miscarriage:

These cases only came about because the women—well, girls—who were denied their rights had the courage to stand up and sue. They only represent a small portion of women who have a legal right under narrow exceptions to have abortions, but find that no one will help them in an environment where anti-choice forces are eager to pounce on anyone they believe is cheating the system. People like Todd Akin or Paul Ryan, who spend a lot of time trying to distinguish between “legitimate” or “forcible” rape versus those rapes that they don’t think are really rapes.

All of which makes it strange that anti-choice politicians who really don’t care what happens to rape victims insist on bans with no exceptions. If you carve out exceptions for rape, you get to have it both ways: You get to force rape victims to give birth and you get to have the public mistakenly believe you’re more moderate than you are. Which is presumably why Romney immediately claimed he and Ryan support rape exceptions, even though Ryan’s history of pushing for personhood amendments makes it clear that he really does not.