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Akin controversy may endanger GOP chances in the fall

Representative Todd Akin’s remarks on rape have focused attention on the party’s agenda on restricting abortion rights, a politically volatile topic for Mitt Romney and other candidates.
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/ Source: The New York Times

As an orator, Representative Todd Akin of Missouri may stand out for his clumsiness. But as a legislator, Mr. Akin has a record on abortion that is largely indistinguishable from those of most of his Republican House colleagues, who have viewed restricting abortion rights as one of their top priorities.

That agenda — largely eclipsed for two years by a protracted fiscal crisis and the fight over how to manage the federal deficit — has wedged its way, for now at least, to the center of the 2012 campaign. It is focusing attention on an issue that helped earn Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, a reputation as a flip-flopper, threatening the Republican quest for control of the Senate, and leaving Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Mr. Romney’s vice-presidential pick, in the uncomfortable position of distinguishing himself from Mr. Akin, with whom he has often concurred.

It is an agenda that has enjoyed the support of House leaders, including Speaker John A. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader, who has called anti-abortion measures “obviously very important in terms of the priorities we set out initially in our pledge to America.” It became inextricably linked to the near-shutdown of the federal government last year when an agreement to keep the government open was reached only after it was linked to a measure restricting abortion in the District of Columbia.

Even as Congressional Republicans, including Mr. Boehner, denounced Mr. Akin’s remark that victims of “legitimate rape” were able to somehow prevent pregnancy, an agenda to roll back abortion is one that House Republicans have largely moved in step with.

In an anti-abortion measure once sponsored by Mr. Akin, Mr. Ryan and scores of other Republican lawmakers, an exemption was made for victims of “forcible” rape, though that word was later removed.

On Tuesday, Republicans approved platform language for next week’s nominating convention that calls for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion with no explicit exceptions for cases of rape or incest. That is a view more restrictive than Mr. Romney’s, who has said that he supports exceptions to allow abortions in cases of rape.

Mr. Ryan’s more conservative views, which have been reflected in votes that would restrict family planning financing overseas, cut off all federal funds to Planned Parenthood and repeal President Obama’s health care law, have come into sharp relief as Mr. Akin struggles for his political life. Mr. Akin and Mr. Ryan each have voted in this Congress for 10 abortion-restricting measures as well as those that limited other family planning services.

Both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney have earned praise for their positions from the National Right to Life group and other anti-abortion organizations. “The right-to-life Romney/Ryan ticket is now complete,” wrote Barbara Lyons and Sue Armacost, executive director and legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life, on the organization’s Web site.

It is a legislative theme Democrats plan to highlight, even as House Republicans try to keep the focus on economic issues.

“All you need to know is that the House Republicans were willing to shut down the government rather than fund Planned Parenthood,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, in an e-mail on Tuesday. “This is in keeping with their efforts — whether it’s Congressman Akin or Chairman Ryan or others — to deny investments in critical women’s health services, weaken the definition of rape, and take away access to preventive care like cervical and breast cancer screenings.”

The House Republican agenda has troubled the half-dozen or so Republican House members whose views differ from those of their colleagues.

“I have time and again spoken out against this to leadership,” said Representative Robert Dold of Illinois, who is in a tough re-election battle. “I’ve tried to talk to them about the issues that we ought to be moving forward on, like out-of-control spending.”

Mr. Dold has voted in favor of half of the abortion restriction measures in this Congress, far fewer than most of his colleagues. “There is no question that there are times when I may disagree with a vote that’s brought to the floor,” he said in an interview, “and the majority of my Republican colleagues, but that is just part of what we deal with every day.”

There have long been lawmakers, like Mr. Akin, whose main legislative agenda centers on the abortion issue. They got a boost after the 2010 election when a large group of conservative members joined them.

Mr. Romney’s views align with that of the Mormon Church, which opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest or when the life of the woman is in danger. He has said he is personally opposed to abortion; as a Mormon bishop in the 1980s he attempted to talk a congregant out of terminating a pregnancy after doctors advised her to do so because of a potentially lethal blood clot.

But abortion has proved to be a politically volatile topic for Mr. Romney, whose evolving views have disappointed liberals and stirred distrust among conservatives.

In 1994, when he challenged Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Romney said he would “not force our beliefs on others on that matter.” In 2002, as a candidate for governor, he claimed to support “the substance” of Roe v. Wade. By 2005, though, when he was beginning to consider a presidential run, he had reversed course and described himself as a “pro-life governor in a pro-choice state.” Now, as a presidential candidate, he refers to himself as solidly “pro-life.”

Aides to Mr. Romney declined to say on Tuesday whether he would call on the convention delegates to reconsider their position on abortion.

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, tried to deflect questions on behalf of Mr. Romney, saying on Fox News that “this is the platform of theRepublican Party; it is not the platform of Mitt Romney.”

The idea of outlawing any exceptions for abortion is not new in American political discourse or in legislation, nor are proposals to narrow the definition of rape to distinguish between what some call “forcible rape” and cases involving statutory rape or even some types of date rape. Anti-abortion activists have long been concerned that women would falsely claim to have been raped to gain an exemption to terminate a pregnancy.

Historians and other experts on abortion politics say the no-exceptions idea became part of the debate virtually as soon as Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. “It has deep roots,” said Donald Critchlow, a historian at Arizona State University who has studied abortion politics. He added, “It’s appealing to segments within the Republican Party to show that you’re pro-life.”

Susan Cohen, director of government affairs for the Guttmacher Institute, a research group in Washington that supports abortion rights, said the no-exceptions idea is “not new and it’s not fringe.”

“It is something that has been part of mainstream anti-abortion movement,” she said. “The record is replete with evidence of the fact that there was this no-exceptions attitude, and of course this makes logical sense from the perspective of people who believe an embryo should have the same legal status as you and I do.”

In the 1992 election, the Republican Party included in its platform language opposing abortion, allowing no exceptions and calling for a constitutional amendment to make abortion illegal. Similar language opposing any exceptions was included in 2000 and 2004, even though George W. Bush also supported outlawing abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the woman was in danger.

Four years ago, the Republican Party adopted a platform seeking an unconditional ban on abortion, though its nominee, Senator John McCain, had urged the party in the past to allow certain exceptions. After this year’s abortion plank language was approved with little debate, the chairman of the platform committee, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, praised the committee for “affirming our respect for human life.”

Pam Belluck and Michael Cooper contributed reporting from New York.

This story, "Todd Akin controversy may hurt Republican chances," originally appeared in The New York Times.