A long-simmering debate within the anti-choice movement about whether anti-choice bills should contain exceptions for survivors of rape and incest emerged yet again in the recent debate over a House bill that would outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks, had been bogged down twice in the past two years with internal disputes over a rape exception, and finally passed last week with a limited rape exception that included a 48-hour waiting period.
The bill’s rape exception split the anti-choice movement, which has been divided between “incrementalists” who want to ban abortion by gradually chipping away at access and legal protections and “immediatists” who want to swiftly declare that fertilized eggs and fetuses have the full rights of “personhood” under the 14th Amendment.
While some personhood leaders opposed the bill because of the rape exception, the main incrementalist groups, which oppose rape exceptions in principle but not necessarily in practice, lobbied behind the scenes to limit the rape exception while publicly supporting the final bill.
One of those groups was the Susan B. Anthony List, whose president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, spoke candidly about the political calculations behind rape exceptions in an interview Saturday with the Iowa conservative radio program Caffeinated Thoughts.
“Regrettably, there is a rape and incest exception” in the bill, she said. “It is the only way it was going to be allowed onto the floor by the leadership. I mean, I say regrettable, I really mean it. Any child at any stage should be protected from conception, and certainly at 20 weeks excepting anyone is just wrong.”
Host Shane Vander Hart told her that while he’d “love to see abortion completely outlawed and see some sort of a personhood amendment or a human life amendment,” he thought the 20-week ban did “move the ball forward.”
“Well, that’s why this is big,” Dannenfelser responded, adding that the 20-week bill shifted the debate to “talking about the child and his or her rights.”
Later in the interview, the program’s cohost Brian Myers asked Dannenfelser what it would take to make the GOP leadership realize that rape exceptions are “intellectually…inconsistent with the pro-life position.”
“It’s going to take winning,” she responded, citing anti-choice victories in the 2014 elections where “we had unapologetic pro-life people who didn’t talk about rape and incest.”
“I believe that it’s going to take winning the presidency for there to be a little more injection of courage, which will be required to understand the consistency of life that you’re describing,” she said.
“Do you think that at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about for a lot of those politicians, that they realize [rape exceptions are] an inconsistent position to take but they take it because they think it’s a political reality?” Myers asked.
“Yes. I think that’s why,” Dannenfelser agreed. “I think that they think they can’t get, that they will lose if they don’t. Most of them don’t believe in it in principle. Some do, which, as you say, is completely intellectually dishonest, but most of them don’t. And I think that sometimes, especially when you’re in that insular world on Capitol Hill that’s not in touch with reality, you make sacrifices that you don’t need to make.”
“I think you’re right,” she added. “It’s a political judgement. It’s not a principled judgement. And I think they made the wrong judgement, but we would have no bill at all and no 15,000 children saved if we had not allowed it to move forward with the exception.”
Interestingly, Dannenfelser held up Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as an example of “a joyful warrior going in there and boldly arguing” on the issue. Graham has said he’s “always had exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest,” even while acknowledging that opponents of exceptions are being “intellectually consistent.” She also recently wrote a glowing profile of presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who favors such exceptions.