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The larger significance of Todd Akin's ridiculousness

If you missed it last night, my colleague Kent Jones posted the video of Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), a U.S. Senate candidate, explaining his unique perspective on biology and sexual health.

"[F]rom what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare," Akin told a St. Louis TV station. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child."

So, as Akin sees it, forcing a woman to carry her rapist's baby to term is fine, but it doesn't much matter because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" -- if it's a "legitimate" rape. What's more, contrary to the congressman's claims, rape-related pregnancies occur "with significant frequency."

Akin has a record of saying some remarkably dumb things, but this takes his troubles to new depths. (Why did Sen. Claire McCaskill and the DSCC make an aggressive effort to help Akin win his primary? This is why.)

There's a broader national significance to this, so let's flesh this out in more detail. As Kent noted, for example, Akin issued a statement arguing that he "misspoke," but he didn't apologize, it's not clear which part he didn't intend to say, and Akin didn't renounce any of his specific claims.

In the bigger picture, if Republicans are going to retake the U.S. Senate, they're almost certainly going to need to defeat McCaskill in Missouri, and unless GOP officials have a plan to disenfranchise women over the next 11 weeks, Akin's odds of victory just collapsed. Republicans are starting to panic, but under state law, Akin would have to withdraw by tomorrow, and even that would be difficult.

And what about Romney/Ryan? Akin's scandal matters more to the Republican ticket than you might think.

President Obama's re-election team has been hammering both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for being so extreme on reproductive rights, so Akin's timing certainly doesn't help the national GOP candidates, and it's one of the reasons Romney/Ryan was quick to say late yesterday that the ticket "disagrees" with Akin's comments, adding that "a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape."

But even that's problematic -- this new stated position appears to contradict Ryan's previous position on the rape and incest exception.

And then there's the legislative problem. Remember the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act"?

In January 2011, one of the very first bills pushed by House Republicans, launched almost immediately after they took the majority, was something called the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." While existing law already restricts public funding for abortions, the law makes exceptions for impregnated rape victims -- and GOP lawmakers decided it was time to limit what can legally be considered "rape."

Specifically, Republican proponents said the exception would only apply to "forcible" rape. If the law had passed, for example, a 13-year-old girl who was impregnated by a 24-year-old man would not be able to use Medicaid funds to terminate the pregnancy, unless she could prove she'd been "forcibly" raped.

The idea that Republicans would try to redefine rape became so controversial that the effort was quietly scuttled. But who were among the original cosponsors of the legislation? Todd Akin and his good pal, Paul Ryan.

So, here's the question for the Republican ticket: "Paul Ryan and Todd Akin teamed up on a bill to redefine rape. Looking back, was that a good idea? And if Romney/Ryan is elected, will the Republican administration support similar efforts in the future?"

Update: Akin is a member of the House Science committee. I just thought I'd mention that.