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The GOP’s newfound abortion dilemma on rape and incest

Antiabortion protesters celebrate in front of the Supreme Court after news broke May 2 that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)
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The Supreme Court is apparently poised to unleash Pandora’s box upon the 2022 midterm elections, delivering Republicans the overturning of Roe v. Wade they have long sought — but which perhaps serves the party better as a political aspiration than a realized goal.

A question we’ve asked before is: What happens when the GOP becomes the proverbial dog that catches that car? What happens if and when the court overturns a landmark precedent that Americans support 2 to 1 — a move that even the author of the leaked draft opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., hinted might be unpopular?

This issue animates the bases of both parties like few others do, but it’s too simple to say this will dramatically change Democrats’ electoral prospects as they stare down an arduous contest in November.

Much depends on what might happen after Roe presumably falls — specifically, what those with newfound power to restrict and ban abortion do with that power. And early indications are that plenty of Republicans will go quite a bit further on this issue than the vast majority of Americans are comfortable with, including by banning exceptions for rape, incest and even the life of the mother.

As The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips wrote recently, most of the recent GOP bills preemptively banning abortion or severely curtailing it include no exemptions for rape and incest. That includes bills codified recently in Florida, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Red states have passed about a dozen such laws this year, and only three include such exceptions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks such legislation and supports abortion rights. Arizona’s ban after 15 weeks makes no exceptions for rape and incest.

And as the GOP begins nominating candidates for November’s elections, several of them have explicitly said no to exceptions for rape and incest.

J.D. Vance, who won Ohio’s GOP Senate nomination Tuesday, said late last year that pregnancy from such situations is “inconvenient,” but that “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Trump-backed Senate candidate Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) said last week that he opposes any exceptions even in those cases, which he labeled a “tragedy.”

In Georgia, gubernatorial candidate and former senator David Perdue, whom Trump endorsed, and five GOP Senate candidates said at a debate that they don’t support rape and incest exceptions. (A sixth, front-runner Herschel Walker, wasn’t at the debate but has said on a survey that he opposes those exceptions.)

And in Michigan, Matthew DePerno, who earned the state GOP’s endorsement for attorney general late last month, has said that in that role he wouldn’t support exceptions for rape, incest or even the life of the mother.

As the Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey wrote Wednesday, this is a significant departure from how the highest-profile Republicans have spoken about this issue for decades. Even Donald Trump, who ran in 2016 in part on nominating justices to overturn Roe (and has now apparently succeeded), emphasized his exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother as recently as 2019. He noted at the time that this was the position of Ronald Reagan.

Some Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have long opposed rape and incest exceptions. But along with the broader issue of banning abortion, this may now transition from the abstract to the real world. And in a party like the GOP that has lurched to the right in the Trump era and placed such an emphasis on appealing to the furthest parts of the right wing, there will surely be plenty of pressure to go there.

As some of the above quotes reinforce, opposing rape and incest exceptions is in some ways the logical extension of the position the party has staked out on abortion: If it’s a moral wrong tantamount to murder, that remains true regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy.

But that doesn’t mean the American public more broadly agrees with that position, however rhetorically consistent. One of the most recent polls to ask about this specific issue, a Quinnipiac University survey from late last year, found that just 16 percent of Texans said abortion should be illegal in the cases of rape and incest. Fully 77 percent said it should be legal — in a socially conservative, red state. And even Republicans opposed making it illegal in those circumstances by a 2-to-1 margin.

Nationally, polls generally find that between 1 in 10 and 3 in 10 people say abortion should always be illegal, depending upon how you ask the question. An Economist/YouGov poll this week found just 14 percent said abortion should “never be allowed” — after the next, less-restrictive option was “legal only in special circumstances, such as when the life of the mother is in danger.”

That poll is a nice distillation of the dilemma in front of Republicans. The law at issue in the Supreme Court actually isn’t an outright ban but Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks. And the same poll found that more than 6 in 10 would support at least that restriction. (Polls have in the past shown similar numbers support shortening the window from where it was — 24 weeks — to 20 weeks.)

So Americans are open to restricting abortion more than Roe does, and also oppose overturning Roe by about 2 to 1. But even if you think the public perhaps doesn’t fully grasp what “overturning Roe v. Wade” means — or that they could be persuaded to leave this issue to the states — they’re much more likely to understand “Republicans forcing rape and incest victims to give birth” as something they overwhelmingly oppose.

Then there’s the question of where some of the party’s more extreme voices might go next. It was just last week, after all, that a former Ohio GOP congresswoman cast pregnancies from rape as an “opportunity” for the victims. In Tuesday’s elections, a Michigan Republican squandered a double-digit-Trump state House district after making an analogy which involved saying, “I tell my daughters, ‘Well if rape is inevitable, you should just lie back and enjoy it.'”

Using the word “inconvenient” when asked about pregnancy from rape or incest might not rise to the same level. But the GOP is familiar with how questions on this issue can trip them up. A decade ago, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks and Richard Mourdock’s comment on how God intends for rape to result in pregnancy arguably cost the GOP Senate seats in red states.

Think about what happens when these issues become the subject of real legislation that will actually go into effect, and there is pressure from the far right to continue moving in that direction. Perhaps such “gaffes,” as such, don’t carry as much weight in a post-Trump world. But if or when those gaffes come to describe reality, they’re certainly going to give GOP leaders heartburn — even as they’re finally getting what they’ve pushed for all along.