Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock is under fire for comments made in a Tuesday night debate, in which he describes pregnancies resulting from rape as "something God intended to happen."

Republican politicians quickly distanced themselves from Mourdock. Pro-life advocates have had the opposite reaction: They have doubled down on their support for the candidate and the strong anti-abortion position he's articulated.

The disparate reactions underscore a tension between principles and policy in the pro-life movement. The anti-abortion movement centers on a moral objection to all abortions, regardless of the situation. That's the conviction that Mourdock articulated Tuesday night. He expressed the belief -- albeit clumsily -- that all life ought to receive the same protection under the law, regardless of any other circumstances.

That moral viewpoint must exist, however, alongside the political reality that a majority of Americans do not share this viewpoint. 

“The basic pro-life world view, within the movement, is that abortion is wrong because it is the killing of an innocent human being,” says sociologist Ziad Munson, author of The Making of Pro-Life Activists.” “If one takes that position, then it doesn’t matter the way in which the development of that life might endanger other people.”

That helps explains why antiabortion  groups have rushed to Mourdock's defense: They agree with the idea that no pregnancy ought to be terminated, regardless of the circumstances of conception.

The Indiana Right to Life Political Action Committee, which endorsed Mourdock  this month, reaffirmed its support. Its president told LifeSiteNews that, while "rape is a vile act," he believes that "we believe that life begins at fertilization and with fertilization comes the right to life."

The Susan B. Anthony List is a national organization that has run ads against Mourdock's opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly (R-Ind.), for his support of the health-care law. It also reaffirmed its support for Mourdock.

"Richard Mourdock said that life is always a gift from God, and we couldn’t agree more," President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. "To report his statement as an endorsement of rape is either willfully ignorant or malicious."

That's the view from abortion foes. Most Americans, however, have a different position on when women should have the option to terminate a pregnancy. Seventy-five percent think a woman should have a right to an abortion in a case of rape, a number that's held steady in Gallup polling since the mid-1990s.
The majority of Americans also support legal abortion in cases where the woman's life or health is endangered by the pregnancy. 
That explains why full abortion bans -- ones that would not make an exception for cases of rape -- have had difficultly gaining traction, even in the most conservative parts of the country. After South Dakota passed an abortion ban in 2006, without a rape exception, voters rejected the measure in an ensuing ballot initiative.
Mississippi's recent attempt to declare life as beginning at conception, which also did not include any exceptions for specific situations, failed in a ballot initiative in 2011.
Full abortion bans have repeatedly proved politically unpalatable -- and that likely explains why even politicians with strong antiabortion records have been quick to distance themselves from Mourdock.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has led the national charge to defund Planned Parenthood. Now running for Indiana governor, he put out a statement distancing himself from the Senate candidate's remarks.

"I strongly disagree with the statement made by Richard Mourdock during last night's Senate debate," Pence said in a statement. "I urge him to apologize."

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has reportedly canceled an event with Mourdock this afternoon because she "disagrees" with the statement.

Antiabortion politicians like Pence and Mourdock ultimately end up supporting what can look like the lesser of two evils. They can throw their weight behind politically unpopular abortion bans. Or, they can stand with smaller restrictions that don't adhere to moral principles. Mourdock is now seeing the backlash that happens to sticking with the former path.