Politics & Policy

Pro-Life Republicans Should Not Fight Exceptions for Rape and Incest

Sen. Marco Rubio (File photo)

During last week’s presidential debate, Senator Marco Rubio said that he believed that abortion should be prohibited with no exception for cases of rape and incest. He has reiterated this view in follow-up interviews. Some other Republican candidates who were not asked about their view on the matter take the same position. Governor Scott Walker was asked and said abortion should be prohibited altogether, with no exception even to save a mother’s life.

Pro-life Republicans need to weigh their words carefully on this matter.

Many pro-lifers believe passionately that intellectual consistency demands that they favor legal protection for unborn children conceived in rape. They accept that exceptionless laws are politically impossible to pass, and therefore support legislation that excludes those cases. They would prefer to enact more-inclusive laws.

It is a defensible position. But it is a highly unpopular one. Americans are ambivalent about abortion, but they are not ambivalent about abortion in cases of rape. The last Gallup poll on this question, taken in 2011, registered 75 percent support for keeping abortion legal in such cases. Not even the most gifted rhetorician is going to persuade most Americans that opposition to such abortions is reasonable in time for November 2016.

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It is also a highly theoretical position. Republican presidential candidates do not generally volunteer to answer questions such as “If it were 1965 would you vote to create Medicare?” They instead dismiss far-fetched hypotheticals. The notion that the next president is going to ban abortion in the case of rape is about as hypothetical as a question involving time travel. Perhaps in a post–Roe v. Wade America a state or two would ban abortion even in cases of rape, and those seeking such abortions would have to cross state lines. But even that is on the far edge of possibility.

The more Republicans talk about the tiny percentage of abortions that take place because of rape, the less they talk about the unborn lives they can actually make near-term progress in protecting.

The other side of the abortion debate has its own extremism, its positions that most Americans reject but that it feels are entailed by the logic of its basic commitments on the issue. The difference is that this sort of extremism is enshrined in law. Several states provide taxpayer-funded abortion. Obamacare subsidizes plans that offer abortion. The Supreme Court, with the enthusiastic support of the Democrats, maintains that abortion must be allowed in the third trimester if it is necessary to preserve a mother’s emotional health.

The more Republicans talk about the tiny percentage of abortions that take place because of rape, the less they talk about the unborn lives they can actually make near-term progress in protecting. Worse: The more they talk about that, the less they will be able to make any progress. That’s why the Left so relentlessly highlights the cases of rape and incest: because it knows full well that a lot of people find the case against abortion attractive outside that context.

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What then should a candidate say if he believes that in an ideal world, unborn children conceived in rape should be protected? Asked about abortion in the case of rape, the first thing that candidate should do is to express sympathy for the woman who was brutalized and put in a terrible position. It would be perfectly honorable for that candidate to say next that restricting abortion in that case is not part of his agenda — because in no serious sense is it part of any Republican’s agenda; and to say that by the end of his presidency abortion will be just as available in cases of rape as it is today — because that is true. Further questions could then reasonably be dismissed.

Even candidates who, like Rubio and Walker, have volunteered statements about their far-off ideals on abortion policy would be well advised to begin emphasizing just how far off they are. They should, that is, note that banning abortion in the case of rape would be a 50-year task of persuasion and not the work of a presidency. They should explain that their goal is to build a consensus on life, starting with the issues where the public supports life. A good time to adopt this approach would be now.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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