Scaring the Voters in the Middle

Posted on September 1, 2012

New York Times, September 1, 2012 by

THE claims of Representative Todd Akin that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape” now live in infamy. But a few things you may not know:

If an American woman in uniform is raped and becomes pregnant, Congress bars Tricare military insurance from paying for an abortion.

If an American woman in the Peace Corps becomes pregnant, Congress bars coverage of an abortion — and there is no explicit exception even if she is raped or her life is in danger.

When teenagers in places like Darfur, Congo or Somalia survive gang rapes, aid organizations cannot use American funds to provide an abortion.

A record number of states have curbed abortions in the last two years. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which follows reproductive health, 55 percent of American women of reproductive age now live in one of the 26 states deemed “hostile to abortion rights.”

The Republican campaign platform denounces contraceptive education in schools. Instead, it advises kids to abstain from sex until marriage.

All this boggles the mind. Republican leaders in 2012 have a natural winning issue — the limping economy — but they seem determined to scare away centrist voters with extremist positions on everything from abortion to sex education.

Most Americans do not fit perfectly into “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camps. Polls show that about one-fifth want abortion to be legal in all situations, and another one-fifth want abortion to be illegal always. The majority fall somewhere between, and these voters are the ones who decide elections.

Bill Clinton won their support with his pragmatic formula that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Then social conservatives won ground with a shrewd strategic decision to focus the abortion debate where they had the edge.

They fought battles over extremely rare procedures they called “partial-birth abortion.” They called for parental consent when a girl seeks an abortion, and for 24-hour waiting periods before an abortion. In polls, around two out of three Americans favor those kinds of restrictions.

But change the situation, and people are more in favor of abortion rights. Four out of five Americans believe that a woman should be able to get an abortion if her health is endangered, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

So it’s astonishing that Republicans would adopt an absolutist platform condemning abortion without offering an exception even for rape.

Mitt Romney insists that his position on abortion is crystal clear. In fact, his policy is so muddled that he doesn’t seem to know it himself. So, Mr. Romney, let me help you out.

On your campaign Web site, you say that life begins at conception and that you favor overturning Roe v. Wade. As with the Republican Party platform, you give no indication there that you favor an exception for rape or to save a woman’s life.

Likewise, you seemed to endorse a “personhood” initiative like the one in Mississippi last year that would have treated a fertilized egg as a legal person. It failed because of concerns that an abortion, even to save a woman’s life, could be legally considered murder. It might also have banned in vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control.

These days, Mr. Romney, as you seek general-election voters, you insist that you do, in fact, accept abortion in cases of rape, incest or a pregnancy that endangers a woman’s life. In an interview with CBS the other day, you added another exception, for the health of the mother.

Mr. Romney, if you don’t know your own position on abortion, how are we supposed to understand it?

More broadly, you’ve allied yourself with social conservatives who are on a crusade that scares centrists and mystifies even many devout evangelicals.

“Representative Akin’s views don’t represent me,” Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good told me. “They also don’t reflect the theological and ethical, not to mention scientific, view of evangelical leaders, who understand the rationale for exceptions: God’s grace and mercy. Akin and company are the political and theological minority, but they have captured the G.O.P.’s platform process.”

Americans are deeply conflicted on abortion, but I think most are repulsed by the Republican drive to impose ultrasounds — in some cases invasive ones — on women before an abortion. Five states now require a woman, before an abortion, to endure an ultrasound that may use a probe inserted into her vagina. Four of those states make no exception for a rape.

And if the Republican Party succeeds in defunding Planned Parenthood, the result will be more women dying of cervical cancer and fewer women getting contraception. The consequence will probably be more unintended pregnancies — and more abortions.

Or there’s sex education. Today in America, more than one-third of teens say that when they began having sex, they had not had any formal instruction about contraception. Is this really the time for a Republican Party platform denouncing comprehensive sex education?

Some Americans don’t even seem to have had any sex education by the time they’re elected to Congress. Like Todd Akin.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground