Women’s bodies are yet again at the axis of the 2012 election season. All it took was an Indiana Republican Senate candidate saying aloud what many evangelical anti-abortion activists seem to believe—that a pregnancy resulting from a rape is “something God intended to happen.” When asked if he was sorry, Richard Mourdock demurred.
“I spoke from my heart. And speaking from my heart, speaking from the deepest level of my faith, I would not apologize,” he said.
The Obama campaign leapt to denounce Mourdock’s stance and align him with the Romney-Ryan ticket. Mitt Romney disagrees with Mourdock’s notion of rape, but still supports his candidacy, said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. Anti-abortion stalwart and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has said, “the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.”
Women’s groups also condemned Mourdock’s words and used them to help rally support. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan challenged Romney to “withdraw his endorsement” of Mourdock, calling the Senate candidate’s statement “callous, insulting, and completely out of touch.”
“No one is surprised to hear yet another dangerously out-of-touch statement from a Republican about rape,” said Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock.
“This is when every moment, every dollar, every vote counts. Please donate if you can!” Planned Parenthood Action Fund said on its Facebook page.
But some are irked by the extensive political posturing around rape, notably survivors and rape-crisis-center workers. To them, this is a subject not about fundraising, public shaming, or politicians brawling to win office. To those who work in this world every day, advocating and just listening to heartbreaking stories, political candidates’ focus on rape—whose victims number more than 200,000 people each year—is stomach-turning.
“Some women became pregnant because of sexual assault and have had the child. They are upset that [rape is] a political topic and that it’s a hot topic to talk about, and that [politicians] are using it to get elected,” said Deana Buril, who has worked with rape victims for 13 years. Buril, the director of crisis intervention at the Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio, Texas, which works with 800 survivors each month, says the most vital part of her job is to listen to the men, women, and children who call to talk about assaults they endured.
“They don’t want you to fix it; they just want you to listen. You might say 10 words during the conversation, but it’s amazing what just listening can do,” she said. A victim of sexual assault herself, Buril, who is 47, believes what she does saves lives. “People call and say, I was thinking about ending my life before I called you, and now I’m going to give it another shot. That’s a big deal.”
Since the publicizing of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of boys, Buril says, more abuse reports have flooded in, and more from men than ever before.
Buril remembers answering a glut of calls from worried women and rape victims after Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin said that in cases of what he called “legitimate rape,” women’s bodies somehow blocked unwanted pregnancies. Mere hours after Mourdock’s statement from a local debate became public, Buril says, she received a call from a mother of two girls who was distraught about the statement, and who wished more women politicians would step up and address such remarks. Buril agrees that a strong response from women in office is needed. “It would mean more to me if a woman stood up and said something. Someone who is in the light and is a public figure defending women.”
For 23-year-old Iliana Figueroa, who advocates for rape victims both in hospitals and in court, the crime itself is so misunderstood by people in positions to help—such as police officers and hospital workers—that statements like Mourdock’s not only insult, but amplify confusion.
“A lot of what we do is try to fight stigma,” said Figueroa, who says she works with about five clients each week at Rape Victim Advocates in Chicago. “It’s really upsetting to hear this white man speak upon women’s bodies and tell us what’s legitimate or not. It’s so uninformed. I don’t understand how this has any room in the political arena.”
Figueroa is not alone in wishing frank conversations about rape could occur without being sparked by politicians’ gaffes or outrageous comments. But the fact that this is election season means politicians’ statements will be pounced on, said Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl, who added that Mourdock’s assertion couldn’t be more poorly timed.
“A campaign that has been hampered with insensitive, inaccurate, and disturbing comments on this issue—that it would have to rear its head now. As far as closing arguments go for this election, I don’t think anyone would have chosen this,” said Sefl, who also sits on the board of the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network.
The Republican and Democratic parties have both insisted this election is about the economy and jobs, but some undecided voters “just now tuning in,” will likely not get that message and be turned off by Mourdock—and along with him, Romney and the GOP, Sefl said.
“Women’s uteri have become the unfortunate mascot of this cycle,” she said.