At the first debate among candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination, the question was not whether or not to ban abortion or to defund Planned Parenthood. It was about whether exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or a woman's life endangerment are legitimate. Their answer: No.
Moderator Megyn Kelly asked Scott Walker how he could justify opposing an exception to an abortion ban in cases where a woman's life was in danger, though he did sign a bill with such an exception. Then she turned around and asked Marco Rubio how he could support exceptions in the case of rape and incest if he believed abortion was murder.
Kelly's question to Walker pointedly played from the left: "Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83% of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?" She took the opposite rhetorical position in questioning Rubio: "If you believe that life begins at conception, as you say you do, how do you justify ending a life just because it begins violently, through no fault of the baby?"
Walker, who asked the Wisconsin legislature for a 20-week abortion ban that had no exceptions for rape and incest but ultimately decided not to heed the anti-abortion activists who begged for a no-exceptions bill, replied, "I believe that that is an unborn child that’s in need of protection out there, and I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That’s been consistently proven." The claim that an abortion is never needed to save a woman's life is a common one in anti-abortion circles. Medical experts disagree.
As for Rubio, he denied he had ever advocated for such exceptions. "What I have advocated is that we pass law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection," he said. "In fact, I think that law already exists. It is called the Constitution of the United States." In fact, Rubio was a cosponsor on a 20-week abortion ban that contained rape, incest and life endangerment exceptions.
Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee did him one better and actually named which amendments of the constitution he believes already ban abortion. Specifically, the fifth and fourteenth.
Even for the party long aligned in opposition to the procedure, the issue of exceptions has been politically challenging. Though the Republican party platform calls for a ban without exceptions, previous GOP presidential nominees Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush generally said they favored such exceptions. The politics around rape and the specter of a woman dying are considered too toxic for a general election.
Still, in a presidential debate in 2008, John McCain put "women's health" in scare quotes and sneered, "'Health for the mother.' You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health." The party's last vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, once said of another abortion bill, "The health exception is a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack truck through it."
On Monday night, that impulse won out.