Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly reported that every House Republican and 16 Democrats voted for a bill that would have added the phrase “forcible rape” to the rape exception in federal abortion funding bans. The bill as introduced included that addition, but when the bill was revised before it went to the House floor, the addition was struck, so no member of Congress voted on that language. The following version has been corrected.

August 20, 2012

LITTLE WONDER that Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican nominee to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate, is trying to back away from his comments about abortion and rape. So ignorant and offensive were his remarks that members of Mr. Akin’s own party, including its presidential standard-bearer, issued strong condemnations, though it took them a while to get strong enough. Mr. Akin was utterly unconvincing in explaining that he “misspoke.” It is scary that someone so ill-informed could hold elective office or have a chance of becoming a senator.

The comments, first aired Sunday on St. Louis’s KTVI-TV, bear repeating, if only to underscore Mr. Akin’s alarming worldview. Responding to a question about whether he would ease his opposition to abortion to allow exceptions for women who have been raped, the six-term congressman said, “It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

It’s idiotic, to borrow the phrase of GOP strategist Mike Murphy, to say — citing doctors, no less — that women’s bodies contain some hidden defenses that can kick in to prevent pregnancies. To suggest there are different categories of rape — some real and awful and others that are not — is loathsome. Even from someone who would liken student loans to Stage 3 cancer, as Mr. Akin once did, the comment was stunning in its stupidity and insensitivity.

At first, Mr. Akin issued a statement saying that he “misspoke” and his “off-the-cuff remarks” didn’t “reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” The explanation was hard to square with the fact that opposition to abortion has been a core tenet of his time in office — the issue isn’t new to him, in other words — and that he expounded on his thoughts during a lengthy interview with KTVI’s Charles Jaco.

As calls mounted for him to withdraw from the Senate race and the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced it would not spend any money to help elect him, Mr. Akin apologized Monday on former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s radio show, calling his remarks “a very, very serious error.” Indeed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Akin’s remarks are not the first, nor are they likely to be the last, in a long-running effort to downplay the horror of rape as a way to restrict access to abortion. Garance Franke-Ruta of the Atlantic catalogued how anti-abortion politicians, since at least 1988, have used the canard of “legitimate rape” or “assault rape” in efforts to restrict and outlaw abortions. What they’re really saying is that not all rape victims are victims, and so we shouldn’t worry if they have to deal with unwanted pregnancy.

One example of this effort to minimize rape came earlier this year when Congress considered whether to rewrite the rape exception in federal abortion funding bans by inserting the phrase “forcible rape,” words eerily similar to Mr. Akin’s note of “legitimate rape.” Among the bill’s 227 co-sponsors was Rep. Paul Ryan, now Mitt Romney’s running mate. The language was stripped from the bill before it won final House approval, but even then, it contained such onerous provisions that it never made it to the Senate floor. Let’s hope the same will be said for Mr. Akin and his unacceptable views.