The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Neither side is going to win the abortion fight with outlier cases

An antiabortion advocate along with abortion rights advocates hold up signs during a rally in Las Cruces, N.M., on July 19. (Meg Potter/The Las Cruces Sun News via AP)
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It was a story so gruesome that at first, many doubted it was true: No sooner had Ohio’s abortion “trigger law” taken effect than a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to go to Indiana for an abortion. The fact that she had to cross state lines for an abortion is, of course, the least horrible thing about this whole story. But it added insult to already grievous injury, and wise legislators would never have passed a law that further brutalized that poor little girl.

Stories like this are a symptom of a Republican Party that came to depend on Roe v. Wade even as they labored to undo it. Roe meant you could pass never-never abortion laws to please the hardest-core activists in your base, safe in the knowledge that you wouldn’t actually have to confront the pregnant 10-year-old you were forcing to carry a baby.

(Jim Bopp, the general counsel for National Right to Life, told Politico, “We would hope that she would understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child.” And I’m sure we all hope that Jim Bopp eventually gets the chance to meet some human beings during his visit to our planet.)

But stories like this are also a symptom of a broader problem with the abortion debate as it unfolded under Roe: We spend far too much time talking about the rarest, hardest cases rather than the prosaic realities of abortion as it usually occurs.

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The overwhelming majority of abortions — more than 91 percent — are obtained by adult women. Out of the 618,789 abortions reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, a little more than 1,400 were performed on patients under the age of 15, which is about 0.2 percent of the total.

Girls that age are too young to consent, and I believe every one of them should have access to a safe, legal abortion to protect them from the physical and emotional trauma of delivering their rapist’s child. And of course you can’t blame the pro-choice movement for using these rare cases to publicize the extreme, unpopular consequences of the no-exceptions laws Republicans passed in states where they control the legislatures. But if you want broad access to abortion, that right can’t rest on the public’s visceral reaction to extreme edge cases.

After all, Republicans can make those cases go away by doing what they should have done in the first place: carving out exemptions for rape and incest, including a blanket exemption for any girl who is too young to consent to sex with anyone. Yes, purist pro-lifers will argue, logically, that a baby is a baby no matter how it was conceived, and doesn’t deserve to be killed in the womb. But the overwhelming majority of voters disagree with forcing rape victims to carry to term.

And even a committed hard-liner might concede that with fewer than 0.5 percent of abortion patients in the United States reporting rape as the primary reason for the abortion, it is probably better to allow a small number of the procedures than to provide pro-choice activists a steady stream of edge cases that shock the public’s moral conscience.

A similar caution applies to Republicans who prefer to focus the debate on late-term abortions. This has been politically fruitful territory for the pro-life movement, which had its greatest successes under Roe with bills banning “partial-birth abortion” and other methods used for abortions after the first trimester. They have been abetted, unfortunately, by a Democratic Party that increasingly shies away from accepting any restrictions at all on abortion access, even quite late in pregnancy (and justifies it by insisting that later abortions are only sought by women facing severe health problems or fetal anomalies, which isn’t true).

Most recently, Senate Democrats botched a bill codifying a national right to abortion because they insisted on pushing a messaging bill that would have forbidden nearly all restrictions on abortion, rather than one closer to where the mainstream of the public is: restrictions on abortions after the first trimester, but broad access before that point. If grateful moderate Republicans didn’t send Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) a fruit basket to thank him for sparing them a tough vote, they should have.

Yet pro-lifers who enjoy fighting on this territory are in the same pickle as pro-choicers who want to focus on rape and incest: Democrats can undercut them at any time by conceding the relatively small number of elective, later-term abortions to protect the 93 percent that are performed before the 14th week.

Eventually we have to be prepared to argue about what abortion mostly is: a medical procedure largely obtained early in pregnancy by healthy women who don’t want a child right now. That terrain may not be quite as comfortable to fight on, but it’s where you need to win.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

In June 2022 the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens now? The legality of abortion is left to individual states. The Post is tracking states where abortion is banned or under threat, as well as Democratic-dominated states that moved to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

Abortion pills: Abortion advocates are concerned a Texas judge’s upcoming abortion pill ruling could halt over half the legal abortions carried out nationwide. Here’s how the ruling could impact access to the abortion pill mifepristone.

Post-Roe America: With Roe overturned, women who had secret abortions before Roe v. Wade felt compelled to speak out. Other women, who were and seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans shared also shared their experience with The Post through calls, text messages and other documentation that supported their accounts. Here are photos and stories from across America since the reversal of Roe v. Wade.