Jennifer Mason, the communications director of Personhood USA and wife of the group’s cofounder Keith Mason, is very disappointed with the way Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have responded to the Todd Akin flap. She’s particularly incensed by the campaign’s insistence that a Romney-Ryan administration wouldn’t try to ban abortion for rape victims. “Romney and Ryan have turned their backs on the Republican Party platform in cases of rape,” she says. “That’s a huge problem.”
Even since Akin introduced the phrase “legitimate rape” into the political lexicon, Republican leaders have been scrambling to distance themselves from him. Romney called on him to drop out of the race, and both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s super PAC, have said they won’t support him financially. But the rush to reject Akin is infuriating the anti-abortion movement, which sees it as a further sign of Romney’s weak commitment to social conservatism. “For goodness’s sake, the guy won’t defend a chicken sandwich, let alone his own Senate candidate,” says conservative radio host Steve Deace, who recently co-wrote a book, We Won’t Get Fooled Again: Where the Christian Right Went Wrong and How to Make America Right Again, arguing that social conservatives have been shafted by the GOP.
Akin is hoping he can capitalize on grassroots anger with Republican leadership. On Wednesday an appeal on his fundraising page for his Missouri Senate bid said: “Join us as we fight back against the party bosses. Help us raise $24,000 in 24 hours!” By late afternoon he’d exceeded that by several thousand dollars. A few minutes later the site set a new goal—$100,000 by midnight. On Thursday morning Akin announced that they beat it, with thousands of people donating.
To outsiders, the anti-abortion movement’s disaffection with the Republican Party might seem odd. After all, in Ryan, Romney has chosen a running mate with a 100 percent lifetime voting record from the National Right to Life Committee—slightly better, as it happens, than Akin, who only scored 90 percent during one of his terms in Congress. As Mason mentioned, the 2012 GOP platform once again calls for prohibiting abortion without exception. Besides, aside from the American Family Association’s ever-inflammatory Bryan Fischer, few in the anti-abortion movement are interested in defending Akin’s ridiculous assertions about female reproductive biology.
Yet if there’s one thing that pro-choice and anti-abortion activists agree on, it’s that the Akin uproar isn’t just about his suggestion that trauma prevents pregnancy. It’s also about his desire to ban abortion even for rape victims. Many Republicans, including Ryan, share that position. But the Romney campaign, knowing how unpopular it is, badly wants to deflect attention from that fact, which is why there’s such a concerted effort to shove Akin aside. Anti-abortion activists note, correctly, that while Republican leaders pander to them, they would prefer to do so without publicity. If Romney is embarrassed by Akin, it’s partly because he’s embarrassed by his own party’s far-right base.
“We expect liberals to lie, spin, and twist, but why should conservatives wage a propaganda attack against a man holding the very position of the National Right to Life on rape-related abortion?” writes Joel McDurmon, the director of research at American Vision, a group devoted to creating “an America that recognizes the sovereignty of God over all of life.” His answer: “Politicians like Akin, who represent the clear contrast and strong conservatism desired by the tea party, are a real threat to the old Northeastern establishment Republicans like Romney. And thus that establishment savages him—violently and in unison. Call it a political gang rape—a legitimate one.”
There was a time when anti-abortion activists bowed to political expediency and enthusiastically backed candidates like George W. Bush, who supported rape exemptions to anti-abortion laws. But the rise of the Personhood movement, which seeks to legally define fertilized eggs as full human beings, has pushed the older, more incremental approach aside. At the same time, the advent of the Tea Party has convinced many conservative voters that they don’t have to compromise; hence the string of Senate primaries, including Akin’s, where far-right insurgents defeated more establishment candidates. In this new climate anything less than anti-abortion absolutism is unacceptable.
“The Romney-Ryan ticket putting out a statement on Monday that said, ‘Hey, if you’re raped, you can kill your kid if you want,’ that went over like a fart in church,” says Deace. Mason sees such a stance as worse in some ways than rejecting the idea of personhood altogether. “If you say that every child in the womb is a person, but it’s OK to kill babies conceived in rape, that’s a horrible position to take,” she says. “It’s almost worse than denying the personhood of those children. You’re just denying their right to live.”
It remains to be seen if anti-abortion donors can offset all the Republican money Akin is losing. Several major anti-abortion organizations are rallying around him, including the Family Research Council and the Susan B. Anthony List, as well as state-level groups like Missouri Right to Life, which said in a statement that it “supports Congressman Akin’s defense of the life of an innocent unborn child conceived by rape.” What this means in dollar terms, though, is unclear. A hundred thousand dollars in one day is a lot of money, but he’ll need more than that to run a successful Senate campaign.
Mason, for one, wants to see him get it. “If he truly is a 100 percent pro-life candidate with no exceptions, with that stellar voting record we’re looking for, I would hope that the pro-life and pro-family groups would fill the gap,” she says.