Rape Exceptions Are the GOP’s New Litmus Test

Several Republican presidential candidates oppose abortion in all circumstances. That’s terrifying.

Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rub,Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio.
Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

If Ben Carson were president, he would want to outlaw abortion under any and all circumstances—no more exceptions for rape, incest, or possibly even in cases where the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. This was the upshot of an interview he gave to Meet the Press on Sunday, in which he also compared abortion to slavery (an analogy that, whatever your politics, just doesn’t make sense). No one familiar with Carson’s brand of Tea Party conservatism—or his habit of comparing Democratic policies to slavery and Nazism—should’ve been surprised. What should be completely shocking, however, is that Carson is late to this party. As MSNBC’s Irin Carmon has pointed out, as much as half of this year’s GOP field—including Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and even resident nice-young-man Marco Rubio—opposes exceptions for rape, incest, and, in some cases, protecting the life of the woman. 

Rubio, in particular, has been the subject of scrutiny for comments he made at the first Republican debate. When Fox moderator Megyn Kelly asked him to explain his support for rape and incest exceptions in August, he protested, “I have never said that.” News outlets quickly uncovered that he had, in fact, co-sponsored abortion bans that contained exceptions—like the so-called “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” of 2013—as well as abortion bans that didn’t—like a D.C.-specific version of the same bill. Some accused the senator of lying, while others agreed with the logic he explained on Meet the Press the day after the debate: “I recognize that, in order to have consensus on laws that limit the number of abortions, a lot of people want to see those exceptions, and that’s why I’ve supported those laws in the past, as has every pro-life group in America.” In other words, Rubio has always looked to support the most anti-abortion measures on offer; whatever his personal opinion on exceptions, he’s never considered them a make-or-break factor.

The rush to adjudicate the truth of Rubio’s statement drowned out a more important revelation. In the past, Rubio clearly didn’t think of rape and incest exceptions as a part of his record whose right-thinking purity he had to vigilantly guard—something he’s been careful to do with the abortion issue as a whole. If his debate performance and the other Republicans’ statements on the campaign trail are any indication, this may be on the cusp of changing.

Whether or not to support exceptions to abortion bans is by no means a new issue for Republicans; it tends to come up in presidential election years. It got a fair amount of airtime in 1988, when vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle stirred controversy by suggesting that any pro-lifer who supported exceptions was a hypocrite. George H.W. Bush, however, didn’t share his running mate’s view—and neither has any other GOP nominee for president in the country’s history. Even Mitt Romney’s long rightward evolution on abortion stopped short at the threshold of rape, incest, and health exceptions in the 2012 election. If the losses of Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, both of whom publicly opposed rape exceptions, are any indication, the alternative would have further undermined Romney’s efforts to look like a kindhearted and reasonable guy—not to mention his friendly rapport with those binders full of women. Akin in particular will never live down his reasoning for opposing rape exceptions: “If it’s a legitimate rape,” he said, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

But a few public losses didn’t slow the GOP’s rightward creep. In 2013, a National Women’s Law Center analysis found that 86 percent of abortion bans introduced at the state level in the first half of that year and 72 percent of those introduced in the U.S. Congress didn’t include a rape exception. “I think they are emboldened,” the report’s co-author Sharon Levin told the New Republic at the time. “There have been a lot of cries for Republicans … to stop talking about rape—but not to step back from what they are doing.”

Less than three years later, will talk like Rubio’s still have consequences? Democrats certainly hope so. Clinton called Rubio’s opposition to rape and incest exceptions “as offensive and as troubling a comment as you can hear from a major candidate running for the presidency.” There’s reason to think voters will agree. A 2014 Quinnipiac poll found that just 1 in 6 Republican voters supported banning abortion in all cases, and a new Planned Parenthood poll that looked at swing states found that Rubio’s comments represented the views of just 16 percent of voters in Ohio, 11 percent of voters in Pennsylvania, and 8 percent of voters in New Hampshire. Opposing exceptions “is extreme even by Republican voter standards,” as political scientist Morris Fiorina told the Guardian.

Extreme, yes. But it’s also, as Quayle suggested all those decades ago, rationally consistent. If Republicans are going to argue that any life at any stage of gestation trumps a woman’s right to determine her own future, then it doesn’t make sense for them to distinguish between regular-old unwanted pregnancies and pregnancies that are the product of coercion or violence. If to have an abortion is really and truly “to kill a baby,” to borrow Carson’s phrasing, then the circumstances of the conception of that “baby” should be irrelevant.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the issue of exceptions to protect a woman’s safety. In this case, for die-hard anti-choicers, life theoretically goes head-to-head with life. Rubio, borrowing a line from anti-abortion activists, dealt with this conundrum on Meet the Press by questioning—without the least scientific basis—whether abortion is ever medically necessary. “[T]here’s a debate about today, given modern medicine, whether there is any condition that only abortion could save a mother’s life in a viable pregnancy,” he said. If this is a debate, it’s the kind where all the experts are on one side. (Rubio should also feel free to read this.)

Despite the current polls showing Trump and Carson battling for the top spot, Rubio is the closest thing in the brawl of the GOP field to a presumptive nominee. That he can blithely espouse such dystopian policy on national television should terrify women and any people who care about them. And if Carson’s tirade is any indication, Rubio’s example has solidified that opposing exceptions is, in 2016, just the not-a-RINO thing to do. If the GOP makes “exceptions” its new litmus test for ideological purity, women’s rights advocates may be forced to retrench, to spend their time defending this tiny patch of ground. Will voters make Republicans pay for this next fall? If not, the GOP has succeeded in hauling the abortion debate even further to the right.