Rape and incest exceptions used to be fairly normal in proposed abortion bans. Since anti-choice initiatives have never really been about “life,” these exceptions were necessary to make already unpopular abortion restrictions more politically palatable. In the past year or so, however, rape and incest exceptions have become more contentious, with more legislators than ever agitating to take them out of abortion restrictions.
Is this a sign that anti-choicers are actually buying their own hype about every fetus being a “life,” regardless of the circumstances of its conception? Nah, that will never happen. If you look at the actual political struggles over this issue, it becomes clear that the increasing hostility to rape exceptions is part of the larger strategy to demonize women seeking abortions as untrustworthy, immature, lazy, and, of course, oversexed.
It’s probably not a coincidence that anti-choicers are increasingly demanding bills with no rape exceptions or extremely restrictive ones right at the time when there’s an increase in public discourse about rape in general. There’s a real danger of feminist progress on this issue, meaning conservatives are reacting by pushing the myth that women routinely lie about rape to cover up for consensual sex.
That is starting to shape the kind of abortion legislation we’re seeing.
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The most recent example comes from South Carolina, where the GOP-dominated House of Representatives passed a 20-week abortion ban this week that did have rape exceptions. But not without a huge amount of controversy: state Sen. Lee Bright (R) has gone on the warpath, first threatening to filibuster in an effort to eliminate rape exceptions and then demanding that voters oust all of his colleagues deemed too soft on alleged rape victims. Bright’s reasoning, evidently, was that women are liars who can’t be trusted when they say they’ve been raped.
“After 20 weeks if you wanted to get an abortion you could go and say you were raped and you could have the abortion,” he complained, according to the Huffington Post. This is what he thinks of women: Not only that they are so lazy that they blow off abortions for months, but that they will just breezily say, “Oh yeah (gum snap), I was like raped or something. Can I like, get my abortion so that I can get in shape for bikini season (gum snap)?”
In reality, most women who want abortions try to get them as early as possible, which is why 89 percent of women get their abortion in the first 12 weeks, despite all the hassles anti-choicers put in front of them. There’s also zero evidence for the claim that women cavalierly say they were raped as some sort of “get out of jail free” pass.
Bright is only the most recent example of this kind of hyper-misogynist logic amongst anti-choicers. The idea that women pull the rape card to wiggle out of being punished with pregnancy for consensual sex has been invoked over and over again by state legislators in the past few months.
In Texas, state Sen. Donna Campbell (R) suggested women would claim to have been raped to get around a proposed ban on insurance coverage for abortions. She argued that women should be forced to produce a police report to get the coverage so that “we have something measurable”, an argument that implies a woman must be assumed lying until proven otherwise.
In Tennessee, state Rep. Sheila Butt (R) struck a similar note, saying that rape was “not verifiable” and therefore the default must be that women are lying if they say they are raped. She was rejecting a rape exception to an abortion waiting period of 48 hours.
On a federal level, Republicans are usually smart enough to avoid outright saying they think women lie about rape to avoid the consequences of consensual sex, but the House’s original 20-week abortion ban had that idea baked right into it. The bill required rape victims who wanted an exception to produce a police report. This not only requires filing one, which may not be in the best interest of all rape survivors, but also being able to get the paperwork from the police, a time-consuming process that might prevent the abortion altogether—and it’s not like rape exceptions were easy to get in the first place.
Even though female Republicans, worried about optics, killed that version of the bill, the new version the House passed still treats rape victims like they’re duplicitous children by requiring a 48-hour waiting period to think the procedure over. Perhaps they will decide they weren’t raped, after all! The fantasy that rape victims are liars may not be as explicit, but the unnecessary scrutiny that stems from that belief persists.
Throughout all this, the assumption that women are morally and psychologically children is evident. Most of the time, that attitude is displayed in the right’s phony claims to be “protecting” women by making it hard to get an abortion. Waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, condescending lectures, crisis pregnancy centers: It’s all part of a larger effort to paint women as silly children who don’t know what they really want, and who need a firm, guiding hand of a conservative legislator to show them what they really want to do is have that baby. (Why conservatives think people whom they apparently believe to be the mental equivalent of children should be raising children is another question entirely.)
This attitude about rape shows the darker side of this women-are-children mentality. Instead of viewing women as errant children who need adult guidance to know their own hearts, conservatives see women instead as naughty ones who tell lies to cover up their bad behavior. In this scenario, a pregnant woman is a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. As a child might tell silly fibs to get out of trouble, in this narrative, the child-women start squalling “rape!” because they heard that’s how you wiggle out of getting grounded for indulging your appetites without permission.
Except, of course, the “grounding” in this case is forced childbirth, and the “cookie” is having had sex.
Which is why this issue isn’t really about rape exceptions at all—it’s the problem with abortion bans in general. Rape exceptions or no rape exceptions, abortion bans are based on the premise that women are children and need, like children, to have their decisions micromanaged lest they misbehave. The fight over rape exceptions just proves how true that is. The real answer is to treat women like adults and let them, not some sex-phobic conservative sitting in a statehouse somewhere, decide if now is the right time to have a baby. Regardless of how that pregnancy started in the first place.