Anti-abortion politicians have always been clear on one thing: Abortion is murder. But for years, this “logic” hasn’t held up against their occasional concession that abortion bans make exceptions for rape. Of course, if these politicians genuinely believed that abortion is murder, they wouldn’t allow any concession at all. Instead, they have long used the rape exception to have it both ways, claiming to simultaneously care about women and also be “pro-life”—two antithetical positions to take.
This dynamic is beginning to shift. Since the much-publicized feud between Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and fellow Republican Rep. Nancy Mace last December over whether abortion bans should include rape exceptions at all, a string of recent proposed and enacted state abortion bans have been made in Taylor Greene’s image more so than Mace’s. Just earlier this month, Florida’s state legislature voted to reject adding an exception for rape to its 15-week abortion ban; lawmakers in Arizona and West Virginia similarly declined to add exceptions for rape to their own 15-week bans. SB8 in Texas bans abortion without exceptions for rape, and nearly a dozen other state legislatures are racing to replicate it as we speak.
In 2022, these state legislatures are pushing this agenda with the strong support of mainstream Republican lawmakers—the same ones who used to try to play it both ways but are now seemingly eager to demand that survivors, should they become pregnant, be forced to carry and birth their rapists’ babies. Abortion bans always made this horrifying outcome possible, even with an exception for rape on paper. Only now, politicians are saying the quiet part out loud.
Fewer and fewer abortion restrictions with rape exceptions, and shrinking Republican support for these exceptions, signal a daunting reality: The anti-abortion movement has finally seized enough political power to enact abortion bans almost indiscriminately, without even the pretense of compromise. This will carry more harm for survivors of rape.
Rape exceptions put Republicans in a political bind. Abortion bans without any exemptions for rape and incest survivors are deeply unpopular with the public, and yet, true believers who insist that “abortion is murder” cannot admit that there are situations in which abortion is morally acceptable.
Until recently, anyone who branched off from the contradictory narrative that they could care about women and survivors while opposing abortion at the same time was disavowed: Ten years ago, then-Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin essentially tanked his campaign by asserting that we don’t need rape exceptions to abortion bans because “legitimate rape” can’t lead to pregnancy. Then-Indiana candidate Richard Mourdock sank his bid for Senate in a similar way that same year, saying that when a woman becomes pregnant from rape, “God intended” that.
In 2017, Alison Turkos survived being kidnapped and gang-raped on a Lyft ride in New York. The harrowing experience changed the course of her life. For nearly a decade before the assault by her Lyft driver, Turkos had been working in the reproductive justice movement, advocating for pregnant people’s bodily autonomy. Her lived experiences with sexual violence and years of abortion advocacy showed her that “survivors and someone who’s seeking abortion care want the same thing—we want control over our bodies, at any time, for any reason.” In the years since, she’s become a leader in organizing at the intersections of survivor justice and reproductive justice.
Turkos believes anti-abortion lawmakers are increasingly abandoning their performance of support for victims and “showing their true colors,” because “they’ve been able to get so far.” In her eyes, lawmakers have passed hundreds of bans and restrictions in the last decade by “using survivors as a shield while trying to fast-track these bills through the legislature.” In other words, by including rape exceptions and therefore permitting abortions for the “right reasons,” legislators could shut down criticisms of their bills as being cruel or anti-women.
The inclusion of rape exceptions to abortion bans did more than make the agendas of anti-abortion politicians appear more humane. On a cultural level, rape exceptions have helped feed the misconception that rape is easy for victims to “prove” to law enforcement or other authorities, brushing away the exhausting, retraumatizing process of reporting rape as a mere footnote in a survivor’s path to getting an abortion.
In reality, that path is harrowing. Cazembe Murphy Jackson, a Black trans man, shared his story of being raped by a group of four men in a small town in Texas in 2019 prior to transitioning. He learned he was pregnant six weeks later. He was able to “scrape together the funds” to have the abortion, and had reported his rape to the police, although he recalls that he felt “dismissed” by them. His feeling on rape exceptions written into abortion bills is that they fail to support “those of us who don’t call the police, because the police are often not helpful, particularly to survivors from communities of color.”
Notably, the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults aren’t reported to police, as some rape exceptions to abortion bans (like a recent Arkansas law) require them to be. And according to Turkos, these exemptions have allowed “survivors’ trauma to be reduced to currency, and measured with a yardstick to see if you can get an abortion.”
With decisive majorities in state legislatures and on the Supreme Court as a consequence of worsening voter suppression, anti-abortion politicians no longer even have to use survivors, or worry about disgusting the majority of the population. As the anti-abortion movement finally peels back its mask to reveal the violent disdain for rape survivors it’s always held, a grave future awaits pregnant survivors in a post-Roe America.
As Florida’s 15-week abortion ban—which one anti-abortion legislator called “generous” to pregnant people—races to the governor’s desk, state Sen. Lauren Book recalls the “devastating” disregard that the bill’s proponents displayed for survivors. “You’re basically putting a gun to a pregnant survivor’s head with these laws—it’s the state further taking control of a woman, of their power and control, just like the rapist, really,” she told Jezebel.
Book, a survivor of child sexual abuse, says state-sanctioned reproductive coercion and interpersonal sexual harm ultimately carry similar impacts, and that the surge in anti-abortion extremism is a direct attack on survivors. “Really, what the fuck are we doing? Where are the services for those who are going to be sentenced and forced to have children?” she said. “‘Pro-life politicians are putting survivors on a cross, and they don’t care what happens to them.”
Any and all abortion bans comprise a form of state gender violence, empowering governments to invade pregnant people’s bodies without their consent and force them to remain pregnant against their will. The consequences of these bans include increased risk of domestic abuse and maternal mortality. People of color who experience sexual violence and seek abortion care at higher rates shoulder the combined brunt of these consequences.
In 2019, Texas state Rep. Donna Howard authored a bill that created a first-in-the-nation Sexual Assault Survivors Task Force in the Governor’s Office to collect information on how government agencies respond to sexual assault reports, and develop survivor-centric best practices. Howard told Jezebel that she was baffled by Governor Greg Abbott’s bizarre promise to simply “end rape” in defense of SB8—particularly his claim that he could do so by “getting rapists off the street,” despite how most cases of sexual violence are perpetrated by non-strangers and intimate partners.
Even when abortion laws have featured exceptions for rape, Howard notes that they reflect the carceral, “law and order” politics of Abbott’s pledge to end rape, as these exceptions can amount to a dangerous form of mandatory reporting—a legal requirement for abuse to be reported to authorities so victims can obtain abortion care, denying survivors agency in the process. This can force pregnant survivors to become involved in the prison system against their will, making many survivors vulnerable to retraumatization.
Abortion bans have always contributed to the sexual-assault-to-prison pipeline, says Jennifer Driver, senior director of the State Innovation Exchange’s Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council (RFLC), which trains and supports state legislators who champion abortion access and reproductive freedom in their legislatures. Statistics show that 90 percent of incarcerated women, many of whom are women of color, have experienced sexual assault. “Rape exceptions, and anything else anti-abortion politicians have done, obviously don’t stop rape, despite whatever it is Greg Abbott says,” Driver told Jezebel. “But what their bans do is often criminalize the person who needs to have an abortion, sometimes after they’ve been raped—and it’s going to be low-income people, Black, and brown people.”
As an extension of the racist War on Drugs that’s targeted Black mothers and pregnant people for alleged drug use, pregnancy outcomes—including miscarriages, stillbirths, and self-managed abortions—are increasingly being policed and criminalized. Pregnant people who experience violence and abuse can also face criminalization and punishment, themselves: In one such case, Marshae Jones, a Black woman in Alabama, was indicted in the death of her fetus and jailed after being shot in the stomach.
Abortion bans across the country have the chilling effect of implicitly normalizing violence against pregnant people. When lawmakers wield their power to police the bodies and reproductive choices of pregnant people, this coercive, abusive behavior becomes culturally acceptable. The landmark Turnaway Study on the impacts of being unable to access abortion care found that being forced to keep an unwanted pregnancy significantly increases the risk of being entrapped in an abusive relationship. Another study found nearly a tenth of people who seek abortion care are trying to end their pregnancies because they have abusive partners. Fifteen percent of women experiencing intimate partner violence reported that their partners also subjected them to reproductive coercion. And the insinuation that abortion is murder is itself an invitation for retaliatory violence that’s placed targets on abortion providers’ backs for decades.
Still, the connections between abortion bans and gender-based violence often go unexamined until particularly egregious cultural milestones, like Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks in 2012 or the allegations of sexual assault against anti-abortion Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, spark viral outrage. Moments like these emit shock at the supposed hypocrisy of “pro-life” people demonstrating blatant disregard for the lives of survivors. This rendering of abusive anti-abortion politicians, or hideous comments about abortion and rape, as exceptional is a product of years and years of rape exceptions sanitizing the innate brutality of these laws. For all the “pro-life” movement’s years of contradictory lip service, abortion bans have always been abusive—and not just when their proponents expose themselves.
In reality, one fairly simple and clean-cut way to prevent survivors from being forced to carry their rapists’ babies is to just not ban or restrict abortion at all.