Sean Philpott: The Silent War on Abortion

Sep 6, 2012

Over the past two weeks, the attention of the American public has been held captive by the political circuses known as the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.  They couldn’t have been more different.

What I found particularly fascinating was not the speeches made by different Democratic and GOP speakers, but what remained unsaid. At the Republican National Convention in particular, most were careful to steer clear of the contentious topic of reproductive rights. Other than lip service paid to the topic by rising female stars like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Minnesota firebrand Michele Bachman, the Republican Party has largely ceded that topic to the Democrats.

That was a wise decision. In the three weeks since Representative Todd Akin, a Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, offended a majority of American by suggesting erroneously that pregnancy was unlikely to occur in cases of “legitimate rape,” the GOP has been trying desperately to change the topic. A staunch opponent of abortion rights, Mr. Akin claims that he “misspoke” but nevertheless has refused to back away from his position that abortion should be banned even in cases of rape or incest.

Both Mitt Romney and Vice-Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan were quick to distance themselves from Mr. Akin, stating in a press release that, “a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in cases of rape.” But that statement is somewhat disingenuous.

First, while Paul Ryan has been widely quotes as saying “rape is rape, period,” his legislative record suggests that he holds a position that is not dissimilar to that of Representative Akin. In his 14 years in Congress, he has co-sponsored almost 40 bills on abortion. Most of those bills do not include an exemption for the victims of rape or incest.

Representative Ryan was also a cosponsor of a controversial measure that would have redefined the rape exemption for federally funded abortions. Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has barred the use of federal money to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening danger to the mother. The Ryan-supported bill would have limited that exemption to cases of “forcible rape,” a poorly defined term that would seem to exclude acts of rape that do not involve violence, such as date rape or statutory rape of a minor. Mr. Ryan has since claimed that the word ‘forcible’ was simply stock language included in the bill, and since removed, but has never clearly explained how he would define ‘rape’.

And what about Mitt Romney’s position on abortion? His views have supposedly evolved over time. When he first ran for office in Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the US, he was support of abortion rights. But since first running for President in 2008, he has been a vocal opponent of abortion rights, actively seeking to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood and calling upon the US Supreme Court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Since his conversion, Mitt Romney has repeatedly voiced strong support for Dr. Jack Willke, one of the founding father of the antiabortion movement and the source of Akin’s disproven theory that rape-related pregnancies are rare. In a earlier statement, the Romney Campaign proudly stated that, “Dr. Willke is a leading voice within the pro-life community and will be an important surrogate for Governor Romney's pro-life and pro-family agenda.”

Finally, the Republican platform approved by delegates in Tampa last week is unequivocal in its call for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all circumstances, even in cases of rape or incest. This is at odds with the position held by most (including Mr. Romney). Fewer than 20% of Americans support a complete ban on abortion.

While language to ban abortion completely has been included in all GOP platforms since 1984, for the first time the party has also included the highly debatable claim that abortion is bad for a woman’s health and wellbeing. While a few studies have found transiently elevated rates of depression among women after selective termination of pregnancy, large-scale analyses of over 250 studies of abortion found no evidence of either physical or psychological harm.

Within the Republican political establishment, the debate is over and the social conservatives who oppose abortion in all circumstances have won. Whether or not Mr. Romney (as candidate or as the potential 45th President) will defend the right to abortion in cases of rape or incest is questionable, as his election chances hinge in part on his ability to convince social conservatives that he is indeed one of them.

For the rest of us, however, it is important not to overlook this topic. That the Republican Party is trying desperately to avoid any discussion and debate shows just how radical the GOP’s position on abortion has become.

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott is a professor of bioethics at Union Graduate College in Schenectady, New York. He is also the Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, which reviews all research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.