A losing battle for both sides

Posted: August 31, 2012

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Let's suppose you want to ban abortion, on the grounds that every fetus or embryo, no matter how tiny, is endowed with the same rights and dignity as a full-blown human being. Would you exempt those conceived by rape or incest?

Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin recently gave his answer: no. And now Republican leaders want the question - as well as Akin himself - to go away. But Akin isn't going anywhere, and neither is the awkward issue he raised.

The question of an exemption for rape and incest underscores the inconsistency of Republicans and the demagoguery of Democrats, who brought the issue into our political debate back in the 1980s. That's when Southern Democrats, fearful of losing ground in the culture wars, presented a compromise to the GOP: We'll let you restrict abortions so long as you exempt rape and incest victims.

They had the voters on their side. In Arkansas, where a rising Democratic star named Bill Clinton was governor, just 11 percent of respondents told pollsters that abortion is acceptable for an unwed teenager. But 66 percent said it's acceptable in cases of incest or rape.

So when the GOP proposed a ban on public funding for abortion, Democrats pounced. Without an exemption for victims of rape or incest, they argued, "innocent" women and girls would be forced to bear the children of their attackers.

Democrats even funded a television ad showing a demurely dressed girl walking home from school. "Imagine your 14-year-old child, your own sweet daughter, is raped and pregnant," a male narrator ominously intoned. The ad then showed a physician explaining to the girl's dismayed parents that he couldn't help them end the pregnancy.

Never mind that the Republican measure at issue wouldn't have outlawed abortion. In one brilliant stroke, Democrats had converted a question of public health and welfare - should taxpayer dollars fund abortion services? - into one of law and order.

Tough luck

But by insisting on an exception for victims of sexual coercion, the Democrats were also implying that other women - those who actually chose to have sex - were less entitled to abortions. If a pregnancy isn't your fault, the argument went, you should get public aid to terminate it. But if it was a result of your own bad decisions - well, tough luck.

The new strategy also allowed Democrats to portray their Republican opponents as soft on crime. In 1989, when President George H.W. Bush vetoed a federal spending bill because it included coverage for abortions in cases of rape or incest, Democrats warned that rape victims would be forced to bear their attackers' children.

They even raised the specter of Willie Horton, whom Bush had used to denounce his 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a coddler of criminals. A convicted murderer, Horton had raped a woman after being furloughed from prison. If Horton's victim had become pregnant, one Democrat asked on the House floor, "Which one of us would have stood before her and said, 'Carry Willie Horton's baby to term'?"

It wasn't lost on listeners that Horton was black and his victim was white. "If a black man rapes a white woman, I don't think God meant for her to have that child," one Virginia Republican politician had declared several years earlier, explaining his own evolving support for a rape and incest exception.

Dangerous idea

By the 1992 GOP convention, even the evangelist Pat Robertson conceded that rape and incest victims should be allowed to have abortions. But other Republicans continued to insist on a complete ban on the procedure. Todd Akin has been one of these stalwarts; until a few days ago, Paul Ryan was another.

Then Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate, and Ryan's tune began to change. Although he is still personally opposed to exceptions for rape and incest, Ryan said in a recent interview, he will defer to Romney's support for them.

Out on the hustings, however, many pro-lifers aren't happy about it. That's why this week's GOP convention endorsed a no-exceptions ban on abortion, despite party leaders' efforts to downplay the issue. And Democrats are licking their chops, hoping for more internal GOP warfare.

On this issue, though, nobody can really win. If abortion is the taking of a life, as many Republicans maintain, then the circumstances that created that life really shouldn't matter. But if abortion is a matter of choice, as many Democrats say, then the reasons for the choice shouldn't matter. By focusing on rape and incest, we only reinforce a dangerous idea: that some people deserve abortion rights more than others.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).

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