Romney's Rape Exception

The Republican presidential nominee is less consistently pro-life than Todd Akin or Paul Ryan.


You know a politician has stepped in it big time when he feels compelled to produce an ad declaring that "rape is an evil act." The spot, in which Todd Akin apologizes for using "the wrong words in the wrong way," is part of his penance for saying, in an interview with a St. Louis TV station on Sunday, that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancy because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Akin, a six-term Republican congressman from Missouri who is running for the Senate, has backed away from that poorly phrased, medically dubious claim, which was condemned by a bipartisan chorus of critics, several of whom said he should withdraw from the race. But he stands firm on his position that rape does not justify abortion, and in this respect he is more logically consistent than many other Republicans who call themselves "pro-life," including the party's presidential nominee.

"The punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child," Akin said in the interview that led the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee to withdraw its support for him. "I believe deeply in the protection of all life," he added in a statement later that day, "and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action."

Mitt Romney takes a different view, as his campaign emphasized in its initial response to Akin's remarks. "Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin's statement," the campaign said, "and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape."

That phrasing obscured the fact that Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, is a devout Catholic who agrees with Akin on this issue, as an unnamed "campaign official" confirmed in an interview with CNN. Ryan's longstanding position, shared by Akin, is that abortion should be allowed only when it is necessary to save the mother's life.

That stance makes sense in light of Ryan's view that fetuses are "living persons whose human rights must be guaranteed." In a 2010 essay published by the Heritage Foundation, the Wisconsin congressman likened Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision in which the Supreme Court overturned state abortion bans, to Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 case in which the Court held that enslaved Africans and their descendants have no constitutional rights.

In both cases, Ryan said, the Court "'disqualified' a whole category of human beings" from constitutional protection, "with profoundly tragic results." Ryan has sought to remedy what he sees as the Court's error regarding the legal status of fetuses by supporting the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which declares that "each human life begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, at which time every human has all legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood."

Romney likewise claims to believe that "life begins at conception"—not "from a theological standpoint," he said in a 2007 Meet the Press interview, but "from a political perspective," which presumably means the rights of fetuses should be legally enforceable. Still, although Romney was "always personally opposed to abortion," he was "effectively pro-choice" when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, promising he would not seek to restrict abortion rights. Later he had a "change of heart," but even today he believes, consistent with his Mormon faith, that "abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is threatened."

While that last exception can be justified on grounds of self-defense (albeit against a nonculpable "aggressor"), the other two cannot, and Romney has never clarified why rape or incest justifies taking an innocent life. Likewise the Mormon church, which cites the biblical injunction against murder in condemning abortion but nevertheless does not take as hard a line as the Roman Catholic Church.

"For many people," Romney said in a 2007 presidential debate, abortion "is considered an act of murder." Evidently he is not one of those people.