Protesters for women's rights hold a rally on the Alabama Capitol steps on Sunday in Montgomery. (Butch Dill/AP)
Opinion writer

Republicans are trying to run away as fast as they can from the draconian legislation passed in states including Missouri, Georgia and Alabama that virtually bans abortion. However, in doing so, they are implicitly acknowledging the “life starts at conception” line that they have deployed for decades doesn’t really mean “life starts at conception.”

President Trump insisted by tweet that he is “strongly Pro-Life” but favors exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. A woman’s health isn’t good enough to warrant an exception, apparently; she must be facing death, not “merely” bodily harm no matter how serious, to get Trump’s approval.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), appearing on CNN, chimed in: “I don’t support the Alabama law. I believe that there ought to be exceptions. I’m pro-life, but there ought to be exceptions for rape and incest and where the life of the mother is at risk.” He then made an interesting point that adopting the extreme position is not “productive.” He said, “I think something much more towards the center makes a lot more sense.”

And finally, there is Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) who let on that this is not just about science. He had this exchange on "Meet the Press”:

CHUCK TODD:

The question really is, is when do you believe a fetus has constitutional rights?

SEN. TOM COTTON:

Chuck, like a lot of folks here in Arkansas, I'm pro-life. And I think a basic responsibility of government, in a civilized society, is to protect innocent life. I know that that's a passionate question on both sides. One of the problems of having unelected judges in Washington make that kind of decision for us, as a nation, is that you can't have space for democratic debate, where you can reach consensus and try to find some common ground. I think that's unfortunate. But I think that what I'm most proud of here, in Arkansas, is that we have recognized that the frontiers of medical science are being pushed back. So doctors are saving the lives of babies born in NICUs in this state at 22 or 20 or even earlier times. I think that's the kind of common ground that we can look for right now, at a time when unelected judges are still setting the basic rules on this very passionate issue.

CHUCK TODD:

But you, you, you yourself must have an opinion on this. When does ― when does a fetus have constitutional rights, in your mind?

SEN. TOM COTTON:

Chuck, what I want to try to find, in this debate, is area where we can, where we can agree on what we should do in a civilized society. If a baby can survive outside of its mother’s womb, in a NICU, as the amazing doctors that we have in this country are able to do, at 22, 20 weeks, then we should protect that life. I know there’s a lot of divisive issues and divisive debates. . . .

CHUCK TODD:

You had, at one time, sponsored a bill, though, that wanted to declare that life began at conception. You did that in the House. But you do not support a similar bill that Sen. Rand Paul introduced. Why the change?

SEN. TOM COTTON:

Chuck, I haven’t reviewed Sen. Paul’s bill. I personally believe that life does begin at conception. . . .

CHUCK TODD:

Is it, is it hard to make the ― if you believe that life begins at conception, then how do you justify an exception for rape and incest?

SEN. TOM COTTON:

Chuck, because we live in a democratic society. I recognize not everyone shares my views or the views of the vast majority of Americans or of Arkansans. That’s why I say that one of the major problems of having unelected judges make these kinds of decisions is we don’t have the ability to have those democratic debates.

There are a bunch of questions that need to be asked, including these:

  • If you favor exceptions for rape and incest, “life begins at conception” isn’t a hard and fast rule is it?
  • When you create exceptions, are you saying life doesn’t begin at conception, or are you saying it begins at conception but the competing interests must be balanced? If it is the latter, why shouldn’t some people consider extreme physical or mental harm to be sufficient for an exemption?
  • Since, as Cotton concedes, “medical science, of course, informs these decisions but ultimately these are moral questions” and we are a democratic society, shouldn’t we rule out laws declaring life starts at conception?
  • If making a woman who is a victim of rape or incest carry a pregnancy to term is oppressive, shouldn’t people such as Trump, Cotton and Romney favor a federal law preempting laws that do not have at the very least these exceptions?
  • Since we are talking about democracy, about 6 in 10 Americans want abortion to be legal all or some of the time. Why shouldn’t that control? Democratic decision-making should be respected, right?
  • If life doesn’t necessarily begin at conception (or it does, but it is not inviolate), why does someone other than the mother get to make the choice about her pregnancy?
  • If you are willing to punish the doctor for performing an abortion, why not the woman? Is she a helpless hoodwinked victim?

Personal autonomy has been recognized for nearly 100 years by the Supreme Court as a constitutional value. In Meyer v. Nebraska, the Supreme Court found as to the 14th Amendment: “Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint, but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” If it applies to all those things, why is control over a woman’s body not her own just as freedom to contract, to choose one’s career, to marry, etc.?

In fact, those who’ve been arguing that a fetus is no different than a baby, that life begins at conception and that we need laws or a constitutional amendment really don’t mean it. It is a matter of who decides the moral equation. Trump wants three exceptions; others want four or five. Once you go down the road of balancing inequities and weighing what concerns are important enough and what ones are not, the justification for breaching a woman’s autonomy evaporates.

In short, those who have been insisting a fetus is no different than a baby should have told us 45 years ago they didn’t mean that literally. If we are now all in the “it’s complicated” or “life begins at conception but …”camp, no one should allow the state to subject women to absolute bans on abortion. Even pro-life politicians should demand Alabama repeal its law, file briefs on the other side or pass federal laws to preempt state statutes. Don’t hold your breath.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: You can tell which side is running scared on abortion bans

Megan McArdle: The Supreme Court should have never intervened on abortion

Leah Litman: The Supreme Court now has cover to cut back on reproductive rights without having to overturn ‘Roe’

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans will lose the ‘reasonableness’ fight on abortion

Helaine Olen: Alabama’s abortion ban doesn’t promote life. It exhibits contempt for it.