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In this second installment of our discussion of abortion stigma, I want to address a common question: what about in cases of rape and incest?   

We’re at a point in American politics when the vast majority of US citizens believe in access to safe and legal abortion. This includes people from all political persuasions.  

And yet, our elected officials feel no qualms in proposing and passing extreme and restrictive abortion legislation. We have become so desensitized to awful abortion bills that when another one makes the news, most of us just roll our eyes and sigh in frustration. *Oh look, another one.*   

If politicians were to place moral restrictions on other healthcare, we would be aghast. For example, imagine if an elected official believed diabetes type II is immoral, and so this official proposed a bill legislating that only those with diabetes type I are allowed to have access to insulin. Are you having trouble imagining that? I am, too. 

Though not an elected official, when ex-pharma executive Martin Shkreli upped the price of the EpiPen – a lifesaving tool for those with allergies, America collectively decided this was pure evil. It is clear to the American public that life-saving medical care should not be legislated or withheld from those with fewer means.   

When laws are passed that make abortion hard to access or close down abortion-providing clinics, I am equally as infuriated. But these laws have become the norm. Between January 2011 and May 2019, 479 abortion restrictions were enacted in 33 states.   

And when politicians propose the most extreme versions of these bills (40% of these laws are bans), I almost always hear the same thing from politicians and news outlets alike: what about in cases of rape and incest?   

This question does something particularly insidious. If someone were to say to me, “I’m against abortion in all cases,” and I were to respond, “but what about in cases of rape and incest?” and they agreed that those two exceptions amounted to a “moral” abortion, we’d have a problem. By asking that question and using it to find common ground on which some abortions are “okay” and some aren’t, we’ve successfully stigmatized any abortion that occurs outside of those two exceptions.    

That’s not the common ground I ever want to stand on.   

People have abortions for all sorts of reasons. For me, if someone is pregnant and they don’t want to be, that’s reason enough. Even asking “why” someone might have an abortion is stigmatizing. No one asks why someone has a root canal. The answer is: because they need one.   

A “compromise” that introduces exceptions for rape and incest into an extreme abortion bill is no compromise. It does nothing to soften the blow of the creation of widespread abortion deserts. And it’s often introduced by hardliner anti-abortion politicians in an effort to placate less hardline allies in their own ranks. It has nothing to do with the health and safety of the real people considering abortion.   

Speaking of health and safety -- we know that the outcome for those who actually report their rape is dismal. To begin with, many people don’t even know if what they experienced can be deemed rape. And if they are able to name the beast, many will inevitably not have their reality believed.   

For abortion ban bills like South Carolina’s proposed H.3020, these exemptions carry with them a caveat. To claim a rape exception, one must report to the police. As Rita Smith, International expert in violence against women and vice president of external relations with DomesticShelters.org, says “There are so many caveats to this [rape exception]. Not only do survivors have to report, but police have to believe them.” According to RAINN, three out of every four rapes do not go reported. “And out of 1000 assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free.”  

It’s important to note also that many Black and Brown women don’t feel safe in the presence of police. Reporting rape as a woman of color can turn an already traumatizing experience into an even more terrifying one. Demanding that women of color face the police just to access a procedure that is STILL legal in all 50 states in a level of authoritarianism and white supremacy that we should all be uncomfortable with.   

Annoyingly, creating “moral exemptions” within an abortion ban forces abortion supporters to argue why the exemptions would be hard to enforce -- as I have just done -- rather than stating plainly: moral exemptions are wrong in the first place. After all, politicians don’t inject these exemptions with the intention of protecting survivors of assault, they use them to eke through unjust and harmful legislation.   

These “exemptions” serve to not only stigmatize abortion for most, but they don’t offer any legitimate avenues to support and care for actual survivors of rape or incest.  

Exemptions for rape and incest stigmatize abortion, are an attack on bodily autonomy, and create a world in which people who don’t want to be pregnant must ask permission to access safe, legal, and lifesaving healthcare.   

Tags: rape, Abortion, incest, stigma

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