Rape and incest exceptions have been a fixture of the country’s mainstream abortion debate for decades: Even as Republican lawmakers and leading antiabortion organizations have rallied hard to reverse Roe v. Wade, their proposals have generally maintained that for victims of rape and incest, abortion should remain legal. At least publicly, only hard-line, absolutist groups championed an all-out ban on abortion.

But that’s been changing as mainstream antiabortion leaders have pushed the question of rape and incest exceptions into the public debate. The recent abortion bans passed in Ohio, Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri and Louisiana outlawing abortion after six weeks of pregnancy do not make exceptions for victims of rape and incest. Neither does Alabama’s law, which bans abortion after conception. This relatively sudden shift, experts and advocates on both sides of the issue say, is driven by President Trump’s appointment of two conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

“State legislators feel very emboldened right now to have this discussion … and to pass whatever legislation they want to pass,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, an antiabortion group that recently drafted a public letter to the Republican National Committee urging the GOP to reconsider its decision to support rape and incest exceptions. “They feel this way because of the Supreme Court and, quite frankly, because of who is the president of the United States.”

Millennial activists such as Lila Rose and Abby Johnson, whom many consider to be the new faces of the antiabortion movement, have also publicly denounced exceptions.

"Pro-lifers have not done a good job articulating the value of a human being in the womb, because they continue to allow these concessions,” Johnson said in an interview with The Lily. “It makes us look like hypocrites.”

It’s not that antiabortion leaders and legislators have recently changed their minds on the question of rape and incest exceptions, said Mary Ziegler, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law who specializes in law and reproduction. Most have always opposed them, she said, but have long regarded the exceptions as a political necessity because they have widespread public support: While roughly half of all Americans consider themselves antiabortion, 77 percent believe that first-trimester abortion should be legal for victims of rape or incest.

Though many GOP leaders, including Trump, continue to support rape and incest exceptions, Ziegler said, for the first time there is a critical mass of Republican lawmakers and mainstream antiabortion leaders who are “politically willing to go there."

“The absolutists have always been around,” she said, “but they have never been this powerful.”

The idea of the rape and incest exception was introduced in the late 1950s in model legislation drafted by the American Legal Institute, a legal organization dedicated to standardizing American law, said Karissa Haugeberg, a professor of women’s history at Tulane University who specializes in abortion issues. After a crackdown on abortion in the United States in the 1950s — at the time, abortion was legal only when the pregnancy posed a risk to the mother’s life or health — a host of states moved to change their abortion codes, decriminalizing abortion altogether or changing their laws to allow for abortion under certain circumstances. In 1967, six years before Roe, Colorado became the first state to implement a rape and incest exception.

After Roe made abortion legal across the country, the issue of rape and incest exceptions began to divide the antiabortion movement, with hard-liners arguing that they shouldn’t settle for anything less than a complete ban and moderates advocating for more of a compromise. Leading up to the 1992 Supreme Court case Casey v. Planned Parenthood, when many believed the court would reverse Roe, the National Right to Life Committee, the largest and oldest antiabortion organization in the country, drafted model legislation that included a rape and incest exception. Versions of that bill passed in a handful of states before they were ruled unconstitutional, Ziegler said. (Casey reaffirmed Roe but gave states the ability to place restrictions on abortion as long as they don’t place an “undue burden” on the woman.)

Casey prompted an even deeper divide between the two sides of the antiabortion movement. While antiabortion legislators and moderate activists moved toward an incremental approach and drafted legislation that would make it more difficult for women to have abortions, absolutist organizations such as Operation Rescue turned violent, forcing their way into abortion clinics and occasionally attacking technicians. Operation Rescue leaders resented concessions such as rape and incest exceptions, said Jenn Holland, a professor of gender and sexuality history at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in abortion issues.

“Their reaction was, ‘We’re talking about abortion using the language of Holocaust and genocide, but we’re not treating it like that,’” Holland said. If abortion is murder, their reasoning went, then it shouldn’t be permitted, regardless of how the child was conceived.

The most obvious reason for the recent turn away from rape and incest exceptions, Ziegler said, is the change in the makeup of the Supreme Court. The appointment of conservatives Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh has made antiabortion groups “unduly optimistic,” Ziegler said. Even though the Supreme Court is, at least at this point, seen as unlikely to overturn Roe, particularly without an exception for rape and incest, those groups see reason to be hopeful.

Many Republican state legislators behind the latest antiabortion bills have acknowledged that their measures, after inevitable legal challenges, will almost certainly never go into effect. But by putting forward extreme far-right bills, Haugeberg suggested, antiabortion supporters might see an opportunity to shift the public understanding of “moderate” abortion legislation.

“After hearing about these cases with no rape or incest exceptions, suddenly cases that involve TRAP laws, which can make abortion care so expensive that some clinics have to shut down, appear pretty run-of-the-mill,” Haugeberg said. “And those seemed pretty radical even just a few months ago.” (TRAP laws, or targeted restrictions on abortion providers, mandate that abortion clinics meet certain standards, requiring changes that are often prohibitively expensive and force clinics to close.)

The ultimate goal of the no-exceptions strategy is to build up momentum, said Johnson, the antiabortion activist. “If it was one state out there doing this on their own, I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said. “But when you have this many states coming out saying, ‘This is really important to us,’ it’s really the court’s job to hear those cases and consider them.”

With a flood of similarly far-right bills, antiabortion legislators hope to give judges and Supreme Court justices the opportunity to publicly telegraph their misgivings with current abortion legislation, Ziegler said. Anytime the Supreme Court rules on a case, both sides — the justices in the majority and the minority — have to draft an opinion, explaining why they ruled in the way that they did.

“If Roe does get overruled a few years down the road,” Ziegler said — and certain justices have already voiced their issues with the ruling — “it comes off as less of a shock.”

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