OXFORD, Ala. - On Monday, a day before Alabama lawmakers were scheduled to vote on a bill that would all but ban abortion in the state, Republican Del Marsh, president of the state senate, asked a group of young mothers - toddlers bouncing on their laps - what they want the Legislature to do.
"How do y'all feel about banning abortion, even in cases of rape and incest?" he asked the women, who gathered at tables outside a Southern Girl Coffee truck here, on the edge of Talladega National Forest, about 100 miles from Montgomery.
"I'm praying for y'all, and I wouldn't want your job," sighed Lauren Holland, 32, her 2-year-old daughter climbing on her chest. She said she would have the baby if she were raped, but making that the law? "That there is real hard for women. I'm a Christian. One-hundred percent pro-life. But I don't think I want that in the law."
Marsh asked the women to keep praying for him as he navigates a contentious fight that could put Alabama on the leading edge of the anti-abortion push to get a state law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He, like many other Republicans here, has long been against abortion and wants the court to overturn Roe v. Wade - and he embraces the strategy of a bill that will force the issue. But he also long has been accepting of three exceptions to bans on abortion: cases that involve rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.
Marsh and some others in the Republican majority here are struggling with Tuesday's vote on an abortion ban, largely because it is so restrictive. Any unborn baby is innocent and deserves a chance at life, the bill's backers argue, even those that are the result of violent or criminal origins.
"It's just, I'm not real comfortable with having a law that forces a woman to carry a baby after rape," Marsh said.
A move to amend the bill last week with exceptions for rape or incest led to a shouting match on the Senate floor, and the vote was tabled. Marsh asked legislators to go home and speak to their constituents, as he himself has done. A vote on the bill has been rescheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
The bill would outlaw most abortions in the state - except those that would protect a woman whose life is in danger because of the pregnancy - and make performing abortion a felony punishable by up to 99 years imprisonment. That part of the law would be considered extreme in some states but was without controversy here.
A majority of Alabama residents are firmly against abortion, and the sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Terri Collins, a Republican, says she has empathy for survivors of rape and incest. But she also wants to make sure the law is strong enough to force federal court intervention - something she and others hope will lead to national restrictions on abortion. To achieve that, she said, the bill must do nothing short of declaring that a fetus has rights from Day One.
"It has to be 100% a person at conception," Collins said,
Collins said she would support states making their own decisions about exceptions. And she agrees "that rape and incest could be an exception in state law.
"But what I'm trying to do here is get this case in front of the Supreme Court so Roe v. Wade can be overturned."
On Monday, the impending vote had lawmakers scrambling across the state. Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, a Republican, urged lawmakers to pass the abortion bill without exceptions and posted a video on Twitter urging Alabamians to call their senators.
"Abortion is murder," he says in the video. "Those three simple words sum up my position on an issue that many falsely claim is a complex one."
Conservatives see this year's state legislative sessions as an important turning point, with governors and lawmakers across the country passing highly restrictive abortion bills in hope of attracting the attention of what they see as the most anti-abortion U.S. Supreme Court in decades.
"It's getting closer and closer," said Scott Dawson, an Alabama evangelist and Birmingham minister who ran for governor in 2018. "In this political landscape, it is time for action. Alabama could actually be the leader of the conservative voice in the United States."
Alabama's bill could serve as a test for the "personhood" strategy, especially if it passes without exceptions. But anti-abortion groups say that even if exceptions are added at the last minute, they won't back down.
"We will never give up on protecting life in the womb," said the Rev. Mike Crowe, who from the pulpit on Mother's Day urged members of Southside Baptist Church outside Birmingham to get ready to be proud foster parents if the bill passes. "I'm sure there are families for those babies."
Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the current round of anti-abortion legislation is more radical than in the past. Alabama is just the latest state to consider doing away with exceptions for victims of rape and incest. Georgia and Ohio recently passed "heartbeat" bills - which ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, about six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant - that would also apply to victims of rape and incest.
"It shows how extreme and how emboldened the people who are pushing these laws feel now," she said. "Before, they knew they couldn't get away with it. Now they think they can."
The ACLU, she said, is preparing to sue if the Alabama measure passes - with or without exceptions.
"At the end of the day, an all-out abortion ban, whether it's at six weeks or before, is blatantly unconstitutional whether those exceptions exist or not," Kolbi-Molinas said.
The vote Tuesday is sure to elicit high emotions, especially after an effort last week to address the issue of exceptions by voice vote rather than by the standard roll call. Democrats saw the move as an attempt by Republicans to exclude the exceptions without going on record as voting to force victims of rape and incest to give birth. Democrats have vowed to try again Tuesday to amend the bill to allow abortions in cases of rape and incest.
With Democrats in the Senate expected to vote against the bill and Republicans divided, "it's going to be real close," Republican Sen. Cam Ward said in his home in suburban Birmingham, where his 7-month-old daughter was about to go down for a nap.
Ward said his stomach hurts over the idea of denying rape victims the opportunity to terminate a pregnancy.
"In California, I'd be to the right of Attila the Hun," he said. "But in Alabama, I'm a moderate."
Last week, Ward said, a young woman came to his office in the Statehouse and said she was raped by a relative when she was 14. She did not become pregnant, but she and her mother said she would have had an abortion had she conceived. As it was, she attempted suicide, was hospitalized for three weeks, struggled in school and is still in counseling years later.
"Her world got very small fast," her mother wrote Ward in an email. "This bill is barbaric. Representatives need to think outside of themselves and their own life experiences."
Ward said he can't get her story out of his mind.
"Look, we are so pro-life in this state. But we've never faced anything like this," Ward said, noting that he has concerns with a bill that doesn't have exceptions for rape and incest.
"The question is, are we going to be the state that says this is OK?" he said. "Even if this is just a legal strategy, I also have a 16-year-old daughter. Would I want her to carry a baby from a rape?
"That's where my stomachache comes in," he said. "That's where folks feel real sick about this."