Rep. Todd Akin, R.-Mo., blew up his Senate campaign by claiming that female victims of “legitimate rape” seldom become pregnant, which isn’t true. Akin’s remark was traceable to a long-discredited 1972 study that’s acquired peculiar currency among male social conservatives. Akin’s remark was later half-endorsed by Rep. Phil Gingrey, R.-Ga. (who, weirdly, is an actual ob-gyn).
Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, taking a somewhat different tack, stated that “even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Tom Smith breezily compared impregnated rape victims to unwed mothers. Like Akin, Mourdock and Smith lost. At a January 2013 retreat, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway had a simple message for House Republicans: Don’t talk about rape.
A child who puts a hand on a hot burner instantly learns never to do it again. Even laboratory rats are capable of learning from negative reinforcement. But some Republican members of Congress apparently can’t. The proof was the June 12 comment by Rep. Trent Franks, R.-Ariz., that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are [sic] very low,” which of course caused an instant and predictable furor.
It’s possible that Franks didn’t mean to compare, as Akin did, the percentage of rapes resulting in pregnancy to the percentage of consensual intercourse resulting in pregnancy. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and David Weigel of Slate, two skeptical connoisseurs of right-wing nonsense, absolve Franks of pulling an Akin. What Franks meant, they argue, is that the total number of pregnancies resulting from rape is comparatively low simply because the incidence of rape– compared to the incidence of consensual sex–is very low. Franks’s remarks were sufficiently inarticulate that this may indeed be what he meant to say (as opposed to what he actually did say). But if Franks did mean that–in the larger scheme of things–the number of pregnancies resulting from rape is trivial, he’s wrong about that, too. In fact, pregnancies from rape number about 30,000 per year–hardly a rounding error.
Franks was defending a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks that cleared the House Judiciary committee—one that makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Republican-controlled state legislatures have also been passing a lot of bills lately that restrict abortions, even though about 63% of all Americans pretty consistently support Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to abortion. Why are Republicans so determined to undermine Roe, even to the point of enacting state laws that could never pass constitutional muster unless Roe were reversed?
Part of the answer is that the public’s views about abortion are sufficiently ambivalent that it isn’t hard to sell bills that limit but (at least in theory) don’t eliminate its availability. A majority of Americans say abortion should be “sometimes legal” (as opposed to always or never legal). That gives the GOP a lot of wiggle room to define “sometimes” however it likes. But as its restrictions become increasingly bold, their effect and intent become, ever-more-conspicuously, not to limit abortions but to end them altogether. The closer Republicans get to seizing that big brass ring, the more starkly they put themselves in opposition to majority opinion, both male and female, across the United States.
But House members and state legislators don’t seek votes across the United States. They don’t even seek votes statewide. They run locally, where the electorate’s views often don’t reflect the larger mainstream. Housing patterns in the U.S. increasingly sort Democrats from Republicans, and gerrymandering sorts them even further. The only political candidates who have to stay in tune with the views of the entire nation are those who run for president. And the GOP’s focus on winning the White House, arguably, is losing some intensity as the Electoral College, which used to favor Republicans, has come to favor Democrats instead.
When all you have to worry about is appealing to people like yourself, the prospect of being unpopular outside your chosen sphere doesn’t seem all that frightening. That’s only likely to become a problem if you run statewide (as Akin, Mourdock, and Smith can attest) or nationally. Otherwise, the odds are you personally won’t get punished for being outside the mainstream. So go ahead and talk all you want about rape, Rep. Franks. You were never going to be president anyway. And the Democrats will love you for further marginalizing the Republican Party as a force at the national level.