Pro-Life Movement

Akin's Abortion View: More Widespread in GOP Than You Think

Orlin Wagner / AP Photo

The word "moron" is being flung very freely at Todd Akin today, and it's not fair.

Akin, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri, just blew a big hole in his campaign by telling a TV interviewer that in cases of "legitimate rape," pregnancy hardly ever happens.

Akin was attempting to justify his view that abortion should be banned in nearly all cases. And yes, the use of the phrase "legitimate rape" suggests a certain lack of verbal nimbleness. Yet stupidity is not really the problem here.

Akin's view of abortion—no exception for rape, incest, and life of the mother—is not his belief alone. It is also the view of Rick Santorum, the second-place finisher in the 2012 Republican nomination contest. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, it became the position of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It is the stance of Ken Connor, former president of the Family Research Council. Plainly, it is the position of a significant faction within the pro-life movement.

And why not? If you believe that a pregnancy becomes a full human person at the very instant of conception, how can any of these exceptions make sense? Follow the hard logic of a strict pro-life position, and Akin's view is where you end up. If I discover that my next-door neighbor was born of incest, I cannot wander over and shoot him dead. We don't apply capital punishment even to the rapist; why should his innocent child pay for his crimes with its life? As for life of the mother, Akin explained his view on that issue well: he urged doctors to "optimize" life, ie, sometimes to choose the mother, but sometimes to choose the child when the child's life seems more optimal.

These views may be shocking, but they are not stupid. With implacable logic, they derive from first principles. If anything, the logic of these views is tighter than the logic that leads the pro-life majority to favor the rape, incest, and life of the mother exceptions.

The hard no-exceptions position is based also on a fairly shrewd reading of some administrative realities. Suppose we do ban abortion except in the named cases. A woman presents herself to her doctor requesting an abortion because she has been raped. How can the doctor know? The US justice system does not convict rapists and settle their appeals within the short span of nine months. The abortion will have to be conducted before the rape is proved. Which means that the doctor will have to decide whether to take the woman's word. And leaving the abortion decision up to women, or even up to women and their doctors, is precisely what is unacceptable to the pro-life movement.

Finally, it should be noted that while nobody thinks that rape is ever "legitimate," plenty of Republicans—including e.g. a majority of the House Republican caucus in a series of votes in spring 2011 on amendments sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey—have distinguished between cases of "forcible rape" (where abortion ought to be allowed) and other forms of rape, where they are not so sure.

In other words, Todd Akin did not stumble his way into his cul-de-sac. The poor expression of his belief is his own fault, but the expression is not really the problem: it is the view that is the problem. Akin's view may be outrageous, but its outrageousness is not one man's mental spasm.