Rep. Todd Akin’s recent reference to “legitimate rape” was not the first time the language around rape has triggered a rapid and heated response.

House Republicans caused a stir a year ago when they used the term “forcible rape.” Two years ago, Nevada Senate hopeful Sharron Angle made headlines for defending her view that young rape victims should not have access to abortion, because they could make “a lemon situation into lemonade.”

The same year, Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck of Colorado was forced to defend his decision as a district attorney not to prosecute a rape case he believed to be a situation of “buyer’s remorse.”

Over the weekend, Akin (R-Mo.) fanned the flames again when he incorrectly suggested women would not become pregnant if they were raped. And it was his use of the term “legitimate” — implying, it seemed, that women lie or that some categories of rape are suspect — that has given fodder to Democrats seeking to tie his sentiments with those of the broader GOP and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

Akin apologized and has tried to clarify what he meant, but that has done little to stanch the outpouring of criticism, not only from liberals but also from members of Akin’s own party. Romney and other Republican leaders — concerned about losing a Senate race and with an eye on the presidential contest in an election year in which women’s votes are critical — have advised him to abandon his race for the Senate seat in Missouri.

Rape-victim advocates say the swift reaction is a testament to how far society has come in its understanding of rape.

Democrats have tried to paint the incident as part of a pattern of insensitivity by Republicans toward women.

Last year, House Republicans, including vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan (Wis.), backed a measure that would have permanently banned federal funding for abortions with some exceptions, including cases of “forcible rape.” That changed the language from previous laws, adding the word “forcible.”

Critics said that language could have excluded victims of statutory rape or cases in which the victim was drugged or incapacitated.

Supporters countered that the wording was not meant to change the generally accepted meaning of rape and accused critics of exaggerating the possible interpretations. But they removed it from the final bill, which passed the House but was not taken up by the Senate.

Victim advocates can point to what they see as progress in the understanding of rape. The FBI , for example, for decades defined rape for statistical purposes as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” a term that critics noted excluded various kinds of assault, including male rape.

The agency has since changed the definition to be more inclusive. But in an indication of how views of rape are still evolving, that revision took place only this year — more than 80 years after the initial definition took hold.

While the issue was not rape, the Virginia state legislature provoked a similar outcry among women’s advocates this year when Republican lawmakers endorsed a bill requiring women who seek abortions to first get an ultrasound, which in some cases would have to be administered internally. The term “transvaginal ultrasound” became a household word — and a rallying cry for advocates of reproductive rights.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) eased the requirement before signing it into law.

Polls show a persistent gender gap in voters’ preference for president. Though most polls show voters favoring Obama over Romney by single digits, Obama led among women by 14 percentage points in a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll this month.

Many of the recent controversies over rape have arisen in connection with abortion. Polls show that some of the most vocal critics of abortion rights have become less open to rape exceptions. Overall, Americans remain overwhelmingly supportive of allowing abortions after rapes, with the number hovering around 75 percent since the 1970s.

But among those who oppose unrestricted abortion rights, just over six in 10 are open to the idea that rape victims should have access to the procedure, according to General Social Surveys conducted over the past decade by the National Opinion Research Center. That has fallen since the 1970s, when the figure was more than seven in 10.

Abortion opponents say rape is not an issue they highlight. Rather, they say, it is abortion rights supporters who typically use it as a weapon against them, especially during an election year.

“No one likes to think of a woman being raped, so they use it to draw attention from their very radical, heartless position,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, a group that opposes abortion in all cases except when the life of the mother is threatened.

But supporters of abortion rights say the issues become intertwined because of opponents’ ongoing efforts to chip away at the circumstances in which women can obtain insurance coverage for abortions. By changing the definition of rape, antiabortion activists can narrow the circumstances in which a woman can obtain insurance coverage or government assistance for the procedure, abortion rights supporters say.

“They will pursue any angle to try to reduce coverage of any abortion, and this one is a path that they have tried many times,” said Judy Waxman, vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center, which supports abortion rights.

Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.