Let’s suppose you want to ban abortion, on the grounds that every fetus—no matter how tiny—is endowed with the same rights and dignity as a full-born human being. Would you exempt pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest?
Last month, Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin gave his own answer: no. And now Republican leaders want the question—like Akin himself—to go away.
But Akin isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the awkward issue he raised. It underscores the inconsistency of the Republicans and the demogoguery of the Democrats, who brought the issue into our political lexicon back in the 1980s.
That’s when Southern Democrats, fearful of losing ground in the culture wars, presented a compromise ot the GOP: we’ll let you restrict abortions, so long as you exempt rape and incest victims.
And they had the voters on their side. In Arkansas, where a rising Democratic star named Bill Clinton was governor, just 11 percent of respondents told pollsters that abortion was acceptable if the mother was an unwed teenager. But 66 percent said it was acceptable in cases of incest or rape.
When the GOP proposed a ban on public financing for abortion, then, Democrats pounced. Without an exemption for victims of rape and incest, they argued, “innocent” women and girls would be forced to bear the children of their attackers.
Democrats even ran a TV advertisement showing a demurely dressed girl walking home from school. “Imagine your 14-year-old child, your own sweet daughter, is raped and pregnant,” a male narrator ominously intoned. The ad then showed a physician, explaining to the girl’s dismayed parents that he couldn’t help them end the pregnancy.
Never mind that the bill in question wouldn’t have outlawed abortion. In one brilliant stroke, Democrats had converted a question of public health and welfare—should taxpayer dollars fund abortion services?—into one of law and order.
But by carving out an exception for victims of sexual coercion, the Democrats also implied that other women—who actually chose to have sex—were less entitled to abortions. If a pregnancy wasn’t your fault, the argument went, you should receive public aid to terminate it. But if it came from your own bad decisions—well, tough luck.
The new strategy also allowed Democrats to paint their Republican opponents as soft on crime. In 1989, when President George H. W. Bush vetoed a federal spending bill because it included coverage for abortions caused by rape or incest, Democrats warned that rape victims would be forced to bear their attackers’ children.
They even raised the specter of Willie Horton, whom Bush had used to denounce his 1988 Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as a coddler of criminals. A convicted murderer, Horton had raped a woman after being furloughed from prison. If Horton’s victim had become pregnant, one Democrat asked on the House floor, “which one of us would have stood before her and said, ‘Carry Willie Horton’s baby to term?'”
It wasn’t lost on listeners that Horton was black, and his victim white. “If a black man rapes a white woman, I don’t think God meant for her to have that child,” one GOP Virginia politician had declared several years earlier, explaining his own evolving support for a rape/incest exception.
By the 1992 GOP convention, even evangelist Pat Robertson conceded that rape and incest victims should be allowed to have abortions. But other Republicans held firm in support of a complete ban on the procedure. Todd Aikin has been one of these stalwarts; until a few days ago, Paul Ryan was another.
Then Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate, and Ryan’s tune began to change. Although he is still personally opposed to the exceptions for rape and incest, Ryan said in a recent interview, he will support Romney’s own proposed ban on abortions—which includes the rape/incest exception.
Out on the hustings, however, many Republican pro-lifers aren’t happy about it. That’s why last week’s GOP convention endorsed a no-exceptions ban on abortion. And Democrats are licking their chops, hoping for more internal GOP warfare between now and November.
On this issue, though, nobody can really win. If abortion is the taking of a life, as many Republicans maintain, then the circumstances that created that life really shouldn’t matter. But if abortion is a choice, as many Democrats say, then the reasons for the choice shouldn’t matter, either. And by focusing on the issue of rape and incest, we reinforce the most dangerous idea of all: that some people deserve abortion rights more than others.
Historian Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth, PA. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press)