Richard Mourdock's Todd Akin Moment

Outrage over Mourdock's comments about rape and abortion are completely justified.

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Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock announces that he will be candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 2012 Republican primary during a campaign rally in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011.

Was it an Akin moment?

Republican Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock didn't go so far as to say that pregnancies don't happen in cases of "legitimate rape," as another Senate contender, Missourian Todd Akin did. But Mourdock stepped in it during a debate Tuesday when he explained why he opposed abortion in all cases, except when the life of the pregnant female is at risk, saying:

I know there are some who disagree, and I respect their point of view, but I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother.

I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Democrats predictably jumped on the comment, calling Mourdock an "extremist" who is "out of touch" with Indianans. In a typical election year, the comments might cause a temporary furor. This year, when the Indiana race is unexpectedly close, when female voters are pushing back against rhetoric and policies they thought had been dispensed with 40 years ago, and when Akin has become not just a name, but a political term all on its own, the remarks by Mourdock are potent.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee stood by Mourdock, saying the candidate was merely pointing out that he believes life is a gift from God, and that of course, Mourdock does not believe God intends rape. Mourdock's campaign said much the same in a statement.

But the GOP should tread carefully. The National Republican Senatorial Committee called the Democratic response "faux outrage." There is nothing "faux" about it. An example of "faux outrage" is the absurd piling on against Tagg Romney for saying on a radio show that he wanted to "take a swing" at President Barack Obama when Obama was (very effectively) challenging Mitt Romney during the second debate. Suggestions of Secret Service inquiry were made. Really? Does anyone really believe that Tagg Romney is a threat to the president? After the third debate, when both candidates' families were onstage, the younger Romney and Obama were talking, with friendly arms reached. It appeared some kind of apology was made and graciously accepted. The outrage over the young Romney's initial comments was affected and ridiculous, particularly given the sincerely nasty remarks made in this campaign season across the board.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

But Mourdock's comments cannot be so easily dismissed. Defending a (nearly) all-inclusive anti-abortion stance has its difficulties, since it's hard for many to imagine putting a rape or incest victim through the trauma of delivering a child of an attacker. It's the same for people who oppose the death penalty, when they are asked if they even oppose it for mass murderers. The point is that true principle should stand up to even the most extreme circumstances. Had Mourdock said something like, "My heart goes out to any woman who suffers such a terrible attack, and I'm sure it must be doubly painful to carry the child of a rapist. But as wrenching as the situation is, I can't condone taking one life to ease the emotional pain of another, that might have worked. It still would not have been enough for many people who can't see putting a rape victim through that, but at least it would have been intellectually consistent. Opposing abortion in all cases except rape, incest, and when the life of the pregnant female is at stake isn't really a judgment on abortion. It's a judgment on how the pregnancy occurred, and by extension, a judgment of the woman for voluntarily having sex. So while opposing all abortions is a more extreme view in terms of its impact, at least it's pure in principle.

But Mourdock didn't say that, and that's where he could run into trouble. His remarks took the pregnant woman completely out of the picture, her pain and needs and desires erased by her status as incubator—even if her status as a potential mother comes from being assaulted. It's unimaginable that Mourdock doesn't feel compassion for a woman who is raped; that's not his problem here. His problem is that he talked about such women as though their lives matter not at all once another life is growing inside them. A lot of women oppose abortion, and even women who are pro-choice might vote for someone who disagrees with them on the issue, especially if other issues are paramount. But they are less tolerant of being insulted—something that is very clear in the gender gap in support for Akin vs. Democrat Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Mourdock's comment was, indeed, outrageous. And there's nothing faux about it.

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