If anyone needed an illustration of the vast gulf that has opened between the old Republican Party and the new one — ushered in over the last quarter century — look no further than the issue of rape and abortion.
A growing number of top-tier Republican lawmakers, running for the US Senate and other high offices, no longer believe that women should be allowed to choose abortions if they become pregnant while being raped.
Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock, who hopes to represent his state in the Senate, created a firestorm when he argued during a debate that all life “is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”
To be clear, Mourdock was talking about the pregnancy, the fertilized egg, as the thing God “intended” that the woman experience, and not the rape — though one can quibble with the logic of how he’s drawing the line.
What’s not fuzzy at all is the fact this is now both a mainstream position within the GOP and a radical, marginal position within American society as a whole.
Polls show that more than 80% of Americans think women should be allowed to choose an abortion if they become pregnant as a result of sexual violence. Yet the Republican Party platform calls for all abortions to be banned without articulating an exemption for any reason.
Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has expressed distrust of exemptions, describing them as loopholes that might allow women to avoid abortion restrictions.
This view is shared even here, in New York, where Senate candidate Wendy Long confirmed in an interview this week with Karen DeWitt that she opposes legal abortion and would not support an exemption in cases of rape.
The issue also surfaced in Missouri’s Senate race, where Todd Akin argued — incorrectly — that women’s bodies have some kind of natural mechanism for preventing pregnancy in cases of rape.
There are two issues converging here for the GOP. The first is a growing loyalty among Republicans to a band of Christian thinking, which holds that all human life is precious and that the creation of life is part of a divine thread which stretches back to Creation.
According to this logic, we live in a fallen world where ugly and painful things often occur, but our mission as Christians is to cleave to biblical principles, even when those appear to require civil laws that appear to many as shocking or even immoral.
Forcing, say, the teenage victim of a rape-incest assault to carry a fetus to term would be viewed by many Americans as morally unacceptable, but according to the hard-right social worldview, the girl’s suffering (and the life that results from her suffering) are part of God’s plan.
The other strand is a deep discomfort among conservatives with feminism, with the shifting standards of women’s empowerment and with new definitions of what constitutes rape and sexual assault.
Because of this discomfort, Republicans have become entangled with muddled and morally shifting concepts of “legitimate” or “forcible” rape, sometimes arguing that women use accusations of sexual violence as a political tool or a weapon against men. Here’s a story told recently by state Republican lawmaker Roger Rivard in Wisconsin.
“[My father] also told me one thing, ‘If you do (have premarital sex), just remember, consensual sex can turn into rape in an awful hurry,’ ” Rivard said. “Because all of a sudden a young lady gets pregnant and the parents are madder than a wet hen and she’s not going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I was part of the program.’ All that she has to say or the parents have to say is it was rape because she’s underage. And he just said, ‘Remember, Roger, if you go down that road, some girls,’ he said, ‘they rape so easy.’
It goes without saying that many Republicans disagree with these views. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney supports banning abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood, but he also wants exemptions in the case of health risks to the woman, and in cases of rape.
(Romney and Ryan withdrew their endorsement of Rivard after his comments were made public.)
But increasingly, moderate views ares the outlier in a national political movement that has continued its rightward shift on social issues. The question always in moments like this is — Have they gone too far?
We’ll see this year whether the growing dissonance between the views of average Americans and Republican principles will cost the GOP at the ballot box.
Two US senate seats appear to be in play in large measure because of the rape-abortion issue. That is enormous. If Obama holds the women’s vote in key states, the furor could also help tip control of the White House.