At first glance, abortion-ban exceptions may seem like a win for reproductive freedom in the face of otherwise restrictive policies. However, upon further evaluation these regulations routinely fail at the one task they claim to do — protect the lives of women. Access to safe and legal abortion is a fundamental human right and an essential component of comprehensive reproductive healthcare. However, recent years have seen a wave of abortion restrictions across the United States, with many of these laws including exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. While these exceptions may seem compassionate, they are often an attempt by conservative politicians to make restrictive policies more palatable to the public. These statutes direct attention away from the real issue at hand — abortion bans are dangerous because they ban abortion, end of story.
Right now, abortion-ban exceptions are primarily being used as a tool for the promotion of restrictive and harmful policies. Since the overturning of Roe v Wade, media coverage has focused largely on states like Louisiana and Texas — which have abortion bans with no exceptions — because they so vividly illustrate the wickedness of anti-abortion policies. However, this has led many people to believe that what makes these an abortion ban extreme and detrimental is whether or not it has specific exceptions for individuals experiencing life-threatening pregnancy complications, rape, or incest. This overwhelming emphasis on whether or not bans have exceptions for extreme cases has distorted our understanding of all states with abortion bans. The truth is that these bans are harmful because they ban abortion, and while exceptions may help politicians distract from the cruelty of the abortion ban itself, they fall short in actually protecting women.
The importance of this topic cannot be overstated. Anti-abortion policy makers view these exceptions as loopholes, and purposefully design them to be difficult, if not impossible, to utilize. In many states with rape or incest exceptions, women are required to provide proof of the assault, which can be incredibly challenging to obtain without undergoing a criminal trial. Even in cases where proof is available, women may still face significant barriers to accessing abortion care, such as long waiting periods, mandatory counseling, and travel requirements. Anti-abortion policies force pregnant people to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops before the option of abortion is even considered.
Similarly, exceptions to protect the life of the mother are often inadequate in ensuring women’s health and well-being. While it is crucial to prioritize the health of pregnant women, these exceptions often require women to wait until their health is in serious danger before they can access abortion care. This delay can have serious consequences for women’s health, as pregnancy-related complications can progress rapidly and become life-threatening. Many health conditions, such as preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, can pose a serious threat to a woman’s life, but they are not always recognized as such until later in pregnancy. By then, it may be too late to obtain a legal abortion under these laws.
However, if done correctly, abortion ban exceptions could be a politically feasible strategy for mitigating the harms of stringent abortion bans, which are unlikely to be overturned the post Roe v Wade era. States should adopt more expansive, comprehensive, and reasonable abortion exceptions that prioritize women’s health and reproductive autonomy. One way to do this is by eliminating the requirement for proof of rape or incest. Rape and incest are traumatic experiences that should not be further traumatized by requiring survivors to provide proof of their assault to access abortion care. For many women, the fear of perpetrator retaliation and stigma form are an impossible barrier to overcome. Instead, states should allow women to self-report their assault, reducing the risk of backlash and increasing reporting rates. Additionally, state governments should remove barriers to accessing abortion care such as unnecessary waiting periods, counseling requirements, and travel requirements that create barriers to accessing abortion. These policies are particularly harmful for low-income women and women living in rural areas who may struggle to travel long distances to access care.
By adopting these policy recommendations, states can ensure that women have access to safe and legal abortion care, regardless of their circumstances. These recommendations prioritize women’s health and reproductive autonomy, and ensure that abortion-ban exceptions are not used as a tool to promote restrictive and harmful policies.
Elena Granowsky (PPS ‘25) is from Greensboro, NC and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.