The XX Factor

Pro-Choicers Hate the Rape Exception

Rape exceptions are not the end game for pro-choice activists

Photograph by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.

Tara Culp-Ressler has a piece up at the Atlantic decrying this ridiculous focus on rape exceptions in the abortion debate. Her eminently sensible case is that since they don’t work (meaning, in places where abortion is illegal other than in cases of rape, women who are impregnated by rape still can’t get their abortions), pro-choicers shouldn’t even bother talking about them. It’s a point I’ve made myself in the past here at Slate. But I have one very serious quarrel with Culp-Ressler’s piece. She seems to think that the whole concept of “rape exceptions” is something reproductive rights activists came up with and push for. She holds them entirely accountable throughout the piece for the concept: 

Throughout this year’s campaign season, women’s health advocates have pressed candidates who oppose legal abortion to clarify whether they support “rape exceptions” for women seeking to terminate pregnancies that have resulted from a sexual assault.


Framing the debate as a struggle to get more lawmakers to agree on abortion access for women who have been raped is not the final goal that choice advocates are striving for.

Of course it’s not the end game. Activists broadly support reproductive rights, and only push for rape exceptions when the large goal of broad access is unachievable. Something is better than nothing, etc. But also: There is a bit of strategy at play. Activists can engage the concept of “rape exceptions” to prove that they don’t work, as the Center for Reproductive Rights did in a recent case regarding a 14-year-old Polish rape victim who was misled, taken from her mother, and subjected to public humiliation by officials who didn’t believe she was entitled to her legal abortion. If pro-choicers can ensure that the public remains on board with the idea that rape victims should have access to abortion, and then can show that exceptions alone do not provide that access, we are actually making a case for abortion remaining legal and accessible for all. 

Anti-choice politicians are the real inventors of the rape exception. The Hyde Amendment that restricts federal funding for abortion passed in 1976, and had a rape exception built into it. Back then, however, rape wasn’t taken as seriously as it is now. Marital rape was legal in all 50 states, for instance. Anti-choicers could safely assume that for a woman to get the exception, she had to be super-raped; they could fantasize about a virgin who was beaten within an inch of her life who they would then graciously allow to have an abortion. Now that feminists have made some inroads in getting the public to take rape seriously, however, anti-choicers have grown anxious that less “deserving” victims will get exceptions, which is why, for instance, Todd Akin and Paul Ryan have been so focused on concepts like “legitimate” or “forcible” rape. Other victims haven’t suffered enough to earn their abortions.

Anti-choicers may have invented the rape exception and pro-choicers may have a stake in keeping it a live issue, but it’s the media that really keeps it at the forefront of the abortion debate. Journalists and anti-choice politicians have a mutually beneficial arrangement in place. Journalists ask about rape exceptions, which make for exciting quote opportunities. Anti-choice politicians get to fantasize out loud about which women are desperate enough to deserve their charity, allowing the more “moderate” among them to appear somehow sensitive to a woman’s plight. Audiences get to debate what hypothetical women are abused and hurt enough to deserve a modicum of control over their bodies. Everyone gets an excuse to titillate themselves thinking about rape. The losers are women who need abortion services, but they tend to be pretty quiet, due to the social shaming, so they can be safely ignored.

When you see the head of organizations like NARAL or NOW mention rape exceptions on TV, you’re looking at someone in a hostage situation. They don’t want to talk about rape exceptions, but if they refuse to, they’ll be shut out of the conversation completely.