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The outrageous, ignorant comments of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, were a reminder that the right of women to decide in private consultation with doctors whether to continue with a pregnancy is under greater threat than anytime since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
While national Republican leaders are expressing shock at Rep. Akin's comments, made on a local television news show, the uncomfortable truth for the GOP is that Akin's core beliefs on the issue of abortion are in line with a large portion of the party's base and its leadership. And in particular they line up with the policies pursued by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., the party's presumptive vice presidential nominee.
During his interview Rep. Akin, when asked whether he would outlaw abortion even for rape victims, repeated a myth that has made the rounds in the anti-abortion movement for years, a twisted fairy tale that suggests pregnancy from rape just doesn't happen, or at least extremely rarely.
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," said Rep. Akin. Conversely, if a woman does get pregnant, it suggests perhaps the rape was not "legitimate," but something she really wanted, or so would seem to go Rep. Akin's bizarre logic. No doesn't always mean no, right?
Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, aptly characterized Rep. Akin's suggestion that women cannot get pregnant during rape as "just nuts."
A 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated that about 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year and placed the national rape-related pregnancy rate at 5 percent among women ages 12 to 45.
It would be easy to dismiss Rep. Akin's comments as coming from some lunatic fringe, and certainly the Republican establishment wants him to quit and go away, except that he doesn't represent the fringe.
Rep. Ryan, the party's VP candidate, and Rep. Akin were among the co-sponsors of the 2011 "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" that in its original form would have prohibited federal funding unless "the pregnancy occurred because the pregnant female was the subject of an act of forcible rape …"
In this context "forcible" and "legitimate" rape are arguably one in the same, both suggesting that some rapes aren't really rapes. The Hyde Amendment already bans federal abortion funding except for "an act of rape or incest."
The bigger context, however, is the Republican drive to outlaw abortions.
The soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has given every indication that given the opportunity he would further strengthen the Supreme Court's conservative majority and bring it closer to the possibility of reversing Roe v Wade. Across the country Republican state legislatures have approved a variety of restrictions on access to abortion, including requiring invasive procedures to discourage women. Any of these could become a test case. The Republican-controlled House has also taken up several measures aimed at limiting access to abortion.
This is an election about more than jobs and the economy. Large and vocal sections of the electorate want to return to a time when abortion was illegal. CNN reported that the Republican Party's draft platform includes a plank to "support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment's protections apply to unborn children."
If extended to fetuses, the amendment's due process clause prohibiting state and local governments from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property would seemingly trump state laws and state constitutional pro-choice protections and allow no exceptions for rape or incest. The draft platform also includes a "salute" to state efforts to restrict access to abortions.
The trouble for Mr. Romney is not that Rep. Akins views are so far outside the Republican mainstream, but that they are so close.