What kindled his words into a controversy was the political context of an election year in which gender-related issues have assumed a prominent place — even as most voters say their prime concern is the economy.
The timing also added fuel. Mourdock made his remarks in a debate that came just one day after his campaign began broadcasting a television spot featuring an endorsement by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Mourdock is the only Senate candidate for whom Romney made such an advertisement.
In a year when both parties are scrambling for women’s votes, Democrats have portrayed the GOP as a party that is captive to its extremists, particularly on issues such as contraception and abortion.
Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to send reassuring signals that social issues will take a back seat to economic ones if they recapture the White House and control of Capitol Hill.
Romney, who supports allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest, distanced himself from Mourdock’s comments. But his campaign did not ask Mourdock’s campaign to quit running the ad in which the former Massachusetts governor praises the U.S. Senate nominee.
“Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock, and Mr. Mourdock’s comments do not reflect Governor Romney’s views,” said Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him.”
Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has views that are similar to Mourdock’s; he supports banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest. But the Wisconsin congressman has said that whatever his own beliefs, the policies of a Romney administration would be those of the presidential nominee.
Only 1 percent of all abortions are performed on victims of rape, and fewer than half that many result from incest, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization whose statistics are relied upon by both sides in the abortion debate.
That an exclusion with so little practical effect has assumed such an oversize political one goes back to the 1976 passage of the Hyde Amendment. It banned federal funding of abortion, which at that time was provided to poor women under the Medicaid program.
The exceptions were a compromise rooted not in science or theology but in politics.
The federal funding ban originally passed with an exclusion only when the woman’s life was threatened. Rape and incest exceptions were added in the late 1970s, along with an exclusion if the woman’s health was seriously threatened, but disappeared again in 1981. The rape and incest language returned in 1993 after more abortion rights supporters were elected to Congress.