Since Roe v. Wade, opponents of abortion haven’t had much luck in the courts, but in recent years pro-lifers have made steady progress in the court of public opinion. In May 2009, Gallup found that Americans who describe themselves as “pro-life” outnumbered those preferring “pro-choice” for the first time. Earlier this year, the pro-choice percentage of the public hit an all-time low.
Todd Akin has reminded pro-lifers how fragile those gains might be. Akin is a congressman and the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Missouri. He also holds some novel views about human biology. Asked about his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, Akin gave an answer that had people scratching their heads — and then shaking their fists.
“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways of shutting that down.”
Akin’s answer raised questions of its own. What constitutes a “legitimate rape”? How exactly does the female body shut down a pregnancy due to rape? Who are these doctors Akin has been talking to and where did they get their medical degrees? And what on earth is this guy thinking?
While rape is the reason behind only a small percentage of abortions, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated in 1996 that over 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year. That’s a non-trivial number.
Republicans quickly distanced themselves from Akin’s comments and then called on their wayward candidate to end his Senate campaign. Mitt Romney and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell urged him to think of the damage he could do to the party. Senator Scott Brown, who is in a tight race for re-election in the liberal state of Massachusetts, called on Akin to drop out. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and other GOP organs de-funded Akin.
The reason for this panic is obvious: if Republicans are to retake the Senate in November, Missouri is a must-win seat. Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill is in serious trouble, but against Akin she has a fighting chance.
The Democrats seemingly came to the same conclusion even before Akin’s impromptu obstetrics lesson. They spent money in an effort to help swing the primary toward him rather than John Brunner or Sarah Steelman.
But pro-life groups for the most part stood by Akin. Their reasoning was understandable. Unborn children have no votes or campaign cash and aren’t guaranteed to have friends in Washington. Todd Akin had been one. He might be a horrible spokesman for the pro-life cause, but he had been a reliable supporter through his House voting record.
Yet thinking back to the 1990s, when the national poll numbers were generally much worse for the pro-life position, several perceptions of abortion opponents impeded their effectiveness in the public debate: they were charged with insensitivity toward women, zealotry, hypocrisy and ignorance.
The advent of the ultrasound helped convince people that it was actually pro-choice absolutists who evinced an Akin-like denial about basic biological realities: sex between men and women creates babies, not “products of conception,” blobs of tissue or other euphemisms.
But asking a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is no small thing, even if the alternative “choice” ends a human life. The face of the pro-life movement has increasingly been the women working in crisis pregnancy centers who recognize that fact. Nevertheless, it still has some representatives who conform to the pro-choice caricature.
Pro-life politicians are often accused of trying to drag women back into the 1950s, as one anti-Romney ad argues, or the Stone Age. Politicians like Akin threaten to drag the pro-life movement back into the age when it was very much a minority opinion.
The fact is, informed women are as likely to be pro-life as ignorant men.
Pro-life groups that remain steadfast in their support of candidates like Akin are quite reasonably rewarding their records of voting to protect the unborn. But for those who understand the abortion issue in these terms, protecting the unborn effectively ought to count for something too.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.