When Republican challenger Mitt Romney chose the eminently photogenic Paul Ryan as his running mate and heir apparent, he must have thought he was finally getting his campaign back on track.
Ryan, the most prominent budget policy wonk in the US House of Representatives, would bring the debate squarely back to the economy where, in the Republicans’ minds, it belongs. Attack President Barack Obama on his economic failings, paint a rosy picture of a Romney-Ryan future, and sail into the White House come January.
Not so fast. Representative Todd Akin (R-Mo), running for the Senate in a close race against incumbent Claire McCaskill, had a different idea.
In an interview with a local television station Sunday night, Akin uttered the astonishing view that women can prevent pregnancy if they really want to.
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare,” said Akin. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
This was used to justify his wholesale opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. Not that Akin excuses rape, exactly.
“I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child,” he added.
Akin’s comments have set off a firestorm to rival this summer’s blazes in the Midwest.
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His lack of knowledge of where babies come from is only part of the problem. Even more unbelievable is his reference to “legitimate” rape, once again bringing to the fore the old doubts about women’s accusations and men’s culpability, or lack thereof.
Is it Akin’s opinion that if a woman conceives after what she claims is a rape, then perhaps she really wanted it all along? Hard to tell.
But what is not at all difficult to discern is that this formerly obscure, gaffe-prone congressman might have just reframed the debate for the presidential race.
Romney rushed to distance himself from Akin’s comments:
“Congressman’s Akin [sic.] comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong,” Romney said in a telephone interview with the National Review Online. “Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive.”
The Romney campaign also issued a disclaimer:
“Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape,’’ wrote a Romney campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Henneberg.
Akin is being chastised: The national GOP is pulling funding from his campaign, and McCaskill is sitting pretty right about now.
But the real punishment is likely to fall on Romney and Ryan.
The pair will have a hard time running away from earlier positions on abortion and rape, and an even harder time dodging the re-emergence of women’s conviction that they are under attack from the Republican Party.
Romney has said, with his characteristic opacity, that he was “effectively pro-choice” in his early political career. In 2002, while running for governor of Massachusetts, a very liberal state, he announced that he would “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.”
That is no longer operative, apparently. Romney now describes himself as adamantly pro-life. In fact, just five years after his heartfelt vow never to interfere with reproductive rights, he professed himself “delighted” at the prospect of signing in a bill to ban abortion nationally.
With Ryan, a Catholic, the issue is even cloudier. Ryan is staunchly opposed to abortion, to funding for Planned Parenthood and, along with Akin, he co-sponsored a bill that sought to narrow the definition of rape, provoking a fierce outcry from women’s groups.
He will find it difficult to walk back those views.
“Todd Akin's case is unfortunately not the only and not the first of its kind,” said Dr. Sophia Yen, a pediatrician in Sunnyvale, Calif. Yen also founded and heads a nonprofit organization, Trust Women, dedicated to preventing teen pregnancy. “It is scary and dangerous that these lies are being spread and that people who are supposed to represent our interests in government are so gullible to lies,” she added.
“There is absolutely a war on women,” said Yen. “Most of the past congressional session was devoted to ‘women’s issues’ like birth control and abortion. I say, ‘focus on the economy, not on my uterus.’”
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Yen may be exaggerating, but not by much. Issues such as the extension of the Violence Against Women Act, debates over whether to require invasive ultrasounds as a prerequisite for abortion, and other topics related to women’s health did consume a good chunk of congressional work time this past year.
“We do not realize that our rights are being taken away until they are gone,” insisted Yen. “The young are too complacent.”
At 41, Yen is not exactly a grandmother herself. But Dr. Debra McKinnon, an emergency room physician in Moscow, Idaho, remembers the 1960s.
“I talk to the young women who come in as much as I can in my capacity as their doctor,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Look around you — are you sure you will have rights over your reproductive functions in the future? If you cannot control your own body, you cannot control your access to education and work, you cannot control the economics of your family.’”
Yen and McKinnon are Democrats, but even Republican women are feeling the pinch. Sue, a woman in Tucson, who did not want to give her last name, said she was breaking with her friends and family in the election.
“My husband is a Republican,” she said. “But I am a mother, a woman, and a medical health care professional. I do not want the Republican agenda. I see what is happening, and I have a daughter to think about.”
Romney and Ryan may be walking a tightrope on women’s issues, but failed presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has been openly beating the ultraconservative drum for months.
No longer fettered by the search for votes, Santorum has formed a nonprofit group, Patriot Voices, and is busy asking for donations. He bitterly opposes Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act (ACA), particularly the provision requiring employers to provide no-cost birth control care for women.
While stumping for Romney in Ohio, Santorum complained that the new health care bill was forcing people to sin.
"We have a president who, for the first time in American history, is directly assaulting the First Amendment and freedom of religion,” Santorum said. “He is forcing business people right now to do things that are against their conscience … if you're a Catholic … you'll have to go to confession.”
Santorum’s good offices may not do the Romney-Ryan ticket a lot of good.
The Obama campaign lost no time in seizing on Akin’s “misspeak” to bolster support among women, where the president already enjoys a significant advantage. According to recent polling data, Obama is as much as 20 points ahead of his rival among childless working women, and a healthy, though shrinking, lead among mothers.
In a surprise press briefing at the White House, the president called Akin’s comments “out there” and acknowledged that he did not think that Romney shared the Missouri congressman’s views.
He did, however, manage to get a dig in against his republican rival:
“That is a significant difference in approach [between the two parties]," said Obama. “We shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women."
To which Yen, McKinnon, and a host of other women can only say, “amen.”