When Scott Walker was asked in the first Republican presidential debate about opposing exceptions on abortion bans to save a woman’s life, the Wisconsin governor had a ready answer.
“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,” Walker replied.
It was a baffling moment for many political observers. Democrats have won elections based on Republicans’ parsing of rape exceptions to abortion bans. The specter of a dying woman — and the defiant claim, in contravention of medical evidence, that there is never any tension between her life and her pregnancy — risks alienating even more voters. But to an increasingly influential wing of the anti-abortion movement, Walker’s words were proof of victory in a long-simmering internal fight over how far to go, how fast.
“There is a significant change happening in the pro-life base, and it’s happening on a national level,” said Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life. That shift is towards demanding, and being promised, an abortion ban without exceptions for rape, incest, or the life and health of the pregnant women. As many as half of the Republican candidates have fallen in line, a contrast from past election cycles.
"There is a significant change happening in the pro-life base, and it’s happening on a national level."'
Witness Sen. Marco Rubio’s repeated assurances following the debate that even though he had advocated for a bill with exceptions, he did not support them. Mike Huckabee has vocally held that position much longer. Ted Cruz is a movement favorite, endorsed by Becker's PAC. Rick Perry credits an anti-abortion activist, Rebecca Kiessling, for his 2011 conversion to the no-exceptions position. Rand Paul championed a no-exceptions total ban on abortion in the Senate that, by virtue of its "personhood" outlook, would count even unimplanted fertilized eggs under its protection. Becker, who also heads the Personhood Alliance, is hopeful about Carly FIorina.
The debate over whether to chip away at abortion rights or to openly advocate for the end of all abortion is an old one among anti-abortion activists. But despite the fact that personhood amendments have been repeatedly defeated in Colorado and Mississippi — and the fact that most Americans support such exceptions — the purist faction seems to be gaining ground.
“More and more pro-life people are starting to speak out against exceptions in legislation, and expecting more from the political process,” said Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee turned anti-abortion activist who frequently testifies before legislatures considering abortion restrictions.
She herself used to support exceptions for strategic reasons, until a change of heart in 2013. “I think there is this shift away from the hypocrisy that has been shown inside the pro-life movement, saying that some babies are worth our valuable time and effort to save and some or not,” she told msnbc, referring to abortions that would be allowable under an exception.
Much like the tea party's tension with the Republican establishment, these anti-abortion activists are willing to go after their own nominal allies by accepting no less than the promise of a total ban.
Much like the tea party’s tension with the Republican establishment, these anti-abortion activists are willing to go after their own nominal allies.'
“Nearly all GOP candidates since Reagan have claimed to be pro-life during elections, yet the killing continues,” Rebekah Maxwell, communications director for Personhood Iowa, told msnbc. “Grassroots activists are frustrated with the lack of action on this front.”
Some are also frustrated with the organizations that have long dominated their cause, especially the National Right to Life Committee, which has adopted a more pragmatic and incremental approach. Last year, Becker’s organization was ejected from its affiliation with the national group after it told Georgia’s congressional delegation to vote against a federal 20-week ban because it had exceptions for rape and incest. (This was the same bill over which a handful of Republican women rebelled for the opposite reason — because they believed its rape exception was too narrow.)
“Until the Supreme Court allows broad protections for unborn children, we work to protect as many children as possible by passing the strongest possible laws at the state and federal level,” the NRLC said in a statement then. The group’s representatives did not respond to msnbc’s requests for comment.
The split laid bare a broader dispute in the movement. “As far as I am concerned, Georgia Right to Life has now become the Westboro Baptist Church of the pro-life movement,” wrote prominent conservative activist Erick Erickson. “Instead of saving souls, they’d rather stone those who are trying to save souls.” But other anti-abortion groups have chosen to leave the fold and openly criticized the NRLC.
“What message does it send to our pro-life representatives when you whip them to support legislation that denies the right to life to innocent babies conceived in rape?” wondered one activist on Live Action News.
Kiessling, an activist who describes herself as having been “conceived in rape,” wrote that it was “clear that the emperor has no clothes, and they will need to be told so.”
Perry recounted how she persuaded him, then governor of Texas, to change his mind on exceptions. “We had a fairly lengthy and heartfelt conversation about how she was conceived in rape,” Perry said in 2011, during his last run for president. “Looking in her eyes, I couldn’t come up with an answer to defend exceptions for rape and incest.”
As for Walker, he specifically requested a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks that lacked exceptions for rape and incest. But the final bill contained an exception for a woman’s life. Pro-Life Wisconsin, the state’s no-exceptions anti-abortion group, came out against the bill. "We urge legislators to refrain from co-sponsoring this bill until the medical emergency exception is fully removed," its legislative director announced. Walker signed it anyway, but then went national in claiming — in defiance of evidence — that abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life.
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Some activists are hoping Walker will now repudiate the bill he signed. "I would like to see him come out with a statement regarding the bill that he signed and why that was not a good idea," Johnson said. Asked about cases like that of Savita Halappanavar, the woman who investigators said died in Ireland because hospital staff were afraid of running afoul of that country's restrictive abortion law, Johnson said, "Yes, there are going to be situations where labor may have to be induced in order to save the life of the mother, but you do everything you can to save the life of a child as well .... In medical terms it may appear to be the same, like an induction abortion, but it’s all about the intent."
Becker, for one, is not worried about criticisms that claim he and his fellow no-exceptions activists are hurting their own cause. “What the pro-life movement does not understand — nor does the Republican party — is that we have a base that does not turn out for candidates like Mitt Romney,” he said.
What about Todd Akin, who lost a 2012 bid for Senate after claiming that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape"?
“Todd Akin’s problem,” said Becker, “was his talking points.”