by Chris Edelson, Assistant Professor of Government, American University School of Public Affairs. Edelson is also author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror from the University of Wisconsin Press.
The misstep Republicans took last month on legislation seeking to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy has exposed larger problems related to the party’s position on abortion. The bill foundered when some House Republicans raised concerns about a provision that would create a “rape exception” to permit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but only for victims of rape who report the crime. Republican House member Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he is “pro-life but . . . had concerns about the bill.” Rep. Curbelo added that he believed the rape reporting requirement caused “a level of discomfort, especially with the females in our conference.” Republican leaders in the House agreed with Curbelo and canceled a vote on the legislation, apparently based at least in part on concerns that Republican women in the House would vote as a bloc against the bill because of the wording of the rape reporting provision.
This unexpected development highlights problems in terms of both logic and politics for Republicans when it comes to abortion and, more broadly, when it comes to women. The Republican Party has taken a position that strongly suggests abortion is never justified, using language reminiscent of anti-abortion arguments that flatly describe abortion as murder. The 2012 Republican Party platform declared that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” That language does not seem to leave room for any exceptions – whether they might be for the health of the pregnant woman or for rape. Logically, it makes sense for the party to take this stance. If Republicans believe abortion involves the taking of an innocent life – and elected Republicans frequently make clear that they believe precisely this – then it would not make sense for them to support abortion under any circumstances (other than if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk).
The problem is that polling shows most Americans reject this position and believe women who are pregnant as the result of rape should be able to get an abortion. Relatedly, in 2012 when Republican senatorial candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock tried to explain why they believed abortion was only permissible in cases of “legitimate rape” (Akin) or that perhaps it is never permissible because pregnancy resulting from rape is “something God intended” (Mourdock), they ended up costing their party otherwise very winnable Senate seats.
Republicans, of course, remember 2012 very well and have no interest in reminding the rest of the country of the cringe-inducing debate over how best to define rape. Sen. Lindsey Graham recently suggested that the party needs to “find a way out of this definitional problem with rape” (although, as Joan Walsh observes, Sen. Graham risks stepping in the same trap as Todd Akin simply by alluding to a “definitional” question regarding rape.) The revival of the rape definition discussion (most recently prompting philosophical musings by a Utah lawmaker about the ability of unconscious wives to have consensual sex) raises a larger problem for Republicans: It seems they just don’t trust women.