Politics

Republicans Are Having Some Trouble Talking About Rape and Incest

GOP officials have face-planted trying to defend the country’s harshest abortion bans.

Vega holds and speaks into a mic as another woman claps in front of an American flag behind her
Republican Virginia House candidate Yesli Vega, who suggested that women are less likely to get pregnant as a result of rape, at an election night event on June 21 in Woodbridge, Virginia. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

By the time the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, 13 states were ready with so-called trigger laws that would ban abortions within their borders immediately. (Additional states had pre-Roe prohibitions in place that will now be enforced.) One notable thing about these trigger statutes, which have been gradually enacted over the past two decades, is that most of them do not make any exceptions for cases involving rape or incest.

This absolutist approach to abortion prohibition was once considered both morally and politically unthinkable, but came into vogue in red states thanks to the increasingly hard-line views that have come to dominate both the conservative movement and anti-abortion activism in particular. The reasoning behind it is straightforward enough: If life really starts at conception and abortion is murder, then terminating a pregnancy for any reason at all must be banned. The issue is that outside the world of conservative ideologues, it remains a wildly unpopular policy.

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Gallup’s polling over the years has found that around three-quarters of Americans consistently say that abortion should be legal in instances where the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. Voters are broadly supportive of abortion rights in the first trimester or so, but they are especially supportive of these rights in scenarios where women have been the victim of a crime. This has left Republicans attempting to defend the politically indefensible. None of the tactics they are trying appears to be working very well.

Take Yesli Vega, a GOP house candidate in Virginia, who was caught on tape during a campaign stop musing that women might be less likely to get pregnant in cases of rape. This is a long-running myth with deep origins in the anti-abortion movement, which might explain why it was proposed first by someone attending the campaign event. On the audio, first reported by Axios, the audience member asks: “I’ve actually heard that it’s harder for a woman to get pregnant if she’s been raped. Have you heard that?” Vega responds: “Well, maybe because there’s so much going on in the body. I don’t know. I haven’t, you know, seen any studies. But if I’m processing what you’re saying, it wouldn’t surprise me. Because it’s not something that’s happening organically. You’re forcing it.”

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The comment was essentially a repeat of the notorious gaffe that ended Rep. Todd Akin’s political career in 2012. The Missouri congressman lost his bid for the Senate after suggesting that women could not become pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.” The comment haunted him quite literally to the grave (it tended to lead his obituaries in 2021). So you might think Republicans would have learned to never go full Akin—but apparently not.

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For those wondering: The surprisingly durable misconception among conservatives that women are less likely to become pregnant from rape was popularized in the Handbook on Abortion, a 1971 book written by Jack and Barbara Willke, an OB-GYN and nurse couple who went on to lead the anti-abortion movement. They cited unnamed studies to substantiate a number of vague and far-fetched claims about issues such as how the hormones that affect pregnancy would be affected by sexual assault; Jack Willke eventually served as president of the National Right to Life Committee for nearly a decade in the 1980s, and even defended Akin’s comments in 2012. (The Willkes are both deceased.)

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Other Republicans have tried to put a more compassionate, principled spin on their position. “I believe every life is precious,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said when asked to defend the lack of a rape exception in her state’s trigger law. “I just have never believed that having a tragedy or tragic situation happen to someone is a reason to have another tragedy occur.” Asked by an AP reporter whether a “12-year-old girl who was molested by her father or uncle” should have to carry the child to term, Philip Gunn, the speaker of Mississippi’s House, responded simply: “That is my belief. I believe life begins at conception.”

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This approach obviously resonates with sympathetic religious audiences who believe blastocysts and embryos are not potential life, but people. But it also underscores the reality that hard-line Republicans view this issue differently from the majority of Americans, who appear to prioritize the personal agency and well-being of sexual assault victims over fetuses. Certainly, not many share Gunn’s opinion that tweens raped by a parent should have to then give birth.

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Some conservatives have tried to deflect by pointing out that abortions in cases of rape or incest are “extremely rare,” as a GOP candidate for governor in Arizona recently put it. This is true-ish: A 2005 Guttmacher Institute study found that less than 1.5 percent of abortions involved cases of incest or sexual violence, and some researchers have suggested the true figure may be lower. But that only raises a question: If these cases are so, so rare, why not make an exception for them to spare at least several thousand women the emotional and physical burden of carrying a rapist’s child? Is banning 98.5 percent of abortions not good enough?

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Some Republicans are conceding that the legislation their party has put into place is too punishing and, perhaps realizing the level of its unpopularity, have hinted it could be pared back at some unspecified time. Take, for example, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who admitted in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd that he actually thought his state’s trigger law should have had an exception for cases of rape (it only includes one for when the mother’s life is at risk). This was awkward, since Hutchinson signed that law. To wit:

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Todd: So if a 13-year-old, though, in Arkansas is raped by a relative, that 13-year-old cannot get an abortion in Arkansas. Are you comfortable with that?

Hutchinson: I’m not. I would have preferred a different outcome than that. But that’s not the debate today in Arkansas. It might be in the future. But for now, the law triggered with only one exception. While you can debate whether there ought to be other exceptions, every state is going to make a different determination on that under our constitution.

It’s nice to see a flash of conscience, but I’m not sure “I am sorry I signed this barbaric law” is going to be a winning argument with many skeptics.

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The Supreme Court’s decision to junk Roe already appears to be deeply unpopular. Several midterm polls already show voters moving toward the Democrats since the ruling came down. It sure seems like Joe Biden and his party would be wise to do anything within their power to keep the conversation focused on abortion issues, given that Democrats are probably going to get trounced in any discussion of the economy due to inflation and gas prices right now. And there may not be a better topic to focus on than the fact that many Republican-run states won’t even make exceptions for cases of rape. If your opponent sounds like a total ghoul talking about an issue, it’s probably best to make them talk about it as much as possible.

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