Ruth Marcus
Columnist August 22, 2012

There’s something off — something a bit cowardly, actually — about the positions of both parties in the abortion debate refueled by the asinine remarks of Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.).

Akin’s comments have left Republicans scrambling to avoid the politically unpalatable implications of the anti-abortion views central to their party. Democrats, meanwhile, are delighted to focus on a tiny subset of abortion exceptions — even as they shy away from standing up for the broader principle that women get to decide whether to continue an unwanted pregnancy, no matter how it happened.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

On the Republican side, Akin says that his error was that he “misspoke one word in one sentence in one day.” Nonsense. Akin flubbed by insinuating — and thinking — that there are different degrees of rape. Then he added ignorance to insult by suggesting that “legitimate” rapes don’t cause pregnancy.

Yet Akin’s essential view — abortion should be prohibited even in cases of rape and incest — is more intellectually coherent than Mitt Romney’s.

Akin and Romney say that they believe that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. If so, the morality of terminating that life should not depend on how it was created — and Akin is correct to oppose such exceptions. (Maternal life is different because, in this worldview, it poses an insurmountable conflict between two lives.)

So, for that matter, was Paul Ryan, who shared this view until he became Romney’s running mate. And so is the newly reaffirmed Republican Party platform, which asserts that an “unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life.”

But mainstream Republicans — Romney, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush among them — have never been willing to take the logic of fetal personhood to that uncomfortable conclusion. I suspect that they would not force a daughter to continue with a pregnancy resulting from rape. They may, also, have taken a look at polls that demonstrate overwhelming majorities favoring exceptions in such circumstances.

Ryan now says that he is “comfortable” with Romney’s exceptions because they represent “a step in the right direction.” Whether or not it’s in the right direction depends, I guess, on where you think Romney’s coming from. Ryan’s new position is easy to square with a desire to be on the ticket and win in November. It’s harder to square with a steadfast belief that abortion is the taking of innocent life.

Democrats are similarly squeamish, only from a different direction. As a matter of short-term political tactics, Democrats are smart not only to seize on Akin’s remarks but to seek to link him with the broader GOP. Hence the Obama campaign’s branding of the Republican platform’s abortion plank as the “Akin amendment.”

As a matter of longer-term strategy to defend abortion rights, the focus on what exceptions must be allowed is playing on GOP, anti-abortion turf. The point isn’t the exceptions, it’s the rule: As expressed in the Democrats’ 2008 platform, the party “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”

This remains the party’s position, and President Obama’s. But much as Republicans understand that the broader public is reluctant to sign on to the no-exceptions view, Democrats recognize that public sentiment is far more supportive of abortion in some cases than of abortion in most or all.

A New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this year offered a snapshot of an electorate disturbingly skeptical of abortion rights: 37 percent said that abortion should be generally available, 23 percent said that it should not be permitted, and 37 percent said that it should be available but “under stricter limits” than currently in place.

How strict? A 2010 poll by Virginia Commonwealth University found the same number as the Times (37 percent) saying that abortion should be available “no matter what the reason” and 44 percent saying that it should be available only “in certain circumstances, such as when a woman’s health is endangered or when the pregnancy results from rape or incest.”

Here’s the problem: Rape and incest account for a minuscule sliver of all pregnancies. Yet nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unplanned; about 40 percent of those result in abortion.

An abortion debate that rallies voters to support the right to abortion in only the most extreme cases may help Democrats in November. It risks failing the vast majority of women who face unwanted pregnancies.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com