Winning the Abortion Wars: Cong. Akin, the GOP, and Religious Authoritarianism

Discussions of Missouri Congressman Todd Akin and “legitimate rape” (whatever that is) were all the rage about a month ago. Well, it turns out that even though his language was too much even for a variety of GOP Pooh-Bahs he is now definitely remaining in the race for the Missouri Senate Seat held by Claire McCaskill. No shrinking violet he, even though after his first debate with the Senator he complained that she was not “lady-like” enough. 

Back when the matter of Akin’s concept of rape first broke, according to The Huffington Post (1), a certain Mr. and Mrs. Sipes, GOP committee members in Missouri's Christian (wow!) County, thought that perhaps Rep. Akin should quit the race against Senator McCaskill. But if he were to stay, they said in they will "back him to the hilt" (which one must suppose they are now doing).  However, Jack Willke, former President of the U.S. National Right to Life Committee, was "outraged at how quickly Republican leaders have deserted" Akin. According to Willke, who ought to know about these things, Cong. Akin "remains a strong and courageous pro-life [sic] leader --- an awkward wording [sic] in one sound bite doesn't negate that."

Several questions thus arise. First, why did the GOP national leadership so publicly and so quickly abandon Akin and attempt to shove him under the bus? Well, as a number of observers have already pointed out, it has nothing to do with policy. The leadership of the House of Representatives, the so-called "Tea Party" (really just the further-Right wing of the GOP), and various national leaders like their Presidential nominee, really have no disagreements with Akin on policy. The current GOP National Platform calls for a constitutional amendment to criminalize abortion in all circumstances. That should come as no surprise (although it did, apparently, to certain liberal observers). The GOP platform has contained similar language since the days when those religious fire-brands Pat Robertson and Patrick Buchanan were actually running for President, that is at least as far back as 1992. One huge mistake that the Democratic Party and its nominees have made since that time is precisely that they never ran against the GOP Platform and up to now are still not doing so. Those platforms are red meat for the GOP, but also for the Dems., if only they would bite into it.

So, why did the GOP tops turn on Akin? His language? Well, not really. Is the term "legitimate rape" really any more objectionable than the term "forcible rape," which the current GOP Vice-Presidential candidate tried to get into GOP-sponsored House legislation? No one seems to be trying to force Ryan off the ticket for that turn of phrase. It's just that "legitimate rape" soundsparticularly insensitive and indeed cruel (not unlike, however, much GOP language addressed, say, to homosexuals, immigrants, Muslims, and the poor. But that's another matter.) Thus Akin did get a lot of negative publicity for it and the "science" that went with it, just before the GOP Convention. Akin's policy? Well, no, as above, that's not a problem either. After all, Romney himself supported the passage of the (failed) so-called "Personhood Amendment" in Mississippi. It would have not only outlawed all abortion but also many kinds of birth control (which the national Constitutional Amendment that is part of the GOP platform would do as well).

It's just that Akin, with his particular innocent (from his perspective --- this is how people like Akin and Ryan think) choice of words has projected the whole Religious Right's issues thing onto the national political agenda, when the GOP doesn't want them to be there right now (if ever). And no, they are not "social issues," as everyone likes to call them. They are all the Religious Right's ones. Just think "opposition to gay marriage," the dog-whistle for homophobia. That opposition is always based on a particular interpretation of what? The King James Version of the Bible, certain parts of which volume, translated and written by a committee of 52 scholars and theologians, and not, apparently, "God," the Republican Religious Right just loves to cite as "inerrant" and want to apply to all of us by the force of the criminal law.

Further, with his "raped women can shut down fertilization" thing Akin has also projected the GOP's long-standing attack on science onto the national agenda. On GOP pseudo-science, concerning the criminalization-of-abortion issue, for example, there's (Dr.) Rand Paul saying that it's a scientific fact that life begins at the moment of conception. Speaking as a physician myself, I wonder what medical school he went to, or maybe he just wasn't paying much attention during his OB clerkship (although his Dad, and obstetrician himself, somehow manages to believe the same thing). No, Rand (and Ron) it is not a scientific fact that life begins at the moment of conception, any more than, Todd, women when raped have some sort of built-in magical contraceptive mechanism. (One must wonder what Ron’s view is on that one.) But since the GOP is deep into the denial of the Theory of Evolution, the denial of the science of global warming, and so on and so forth, one can understand how they get to the Paulian view of when life begins.

"When life begins" is a religious (and philosophical/ethical, for us Reasonists/humanists) concept, not a scientific one. In fact, great Catholic theologians, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas themselves, did not believe that the soul, which, they felt, upon its arrival indicated that "life" had begun, was present in the embryo from the moment of conception. Rather, it arrived somewhat later (2). "Later" was usually defined as the time of "quickening," which occurs some time on the 2nd trimester. So abortion relatively early during pregnancy was OK for Catholics for most of the life of the Catholic Church. That is until it was declared not OK by Pope Pius IX in 1869.

That the matter of abortion is first and foremost a religious question is the key point that the "pro-choice" movement has missed all of these years. It is a matter of a woman's choice, of course. But in their drive to criminalize such a choice the anti-abortionists always proceed from a religiousposition, theirs, that "life begins at the moment of conception." What our side has missed all of these years is that there is an equally valid religious belief (and a Reasonist/humanist belief as well) that life begins at the time of viability, which would be just a few weeks later in a pregnancy than the "quickening" that determined Catholic doctrine from the early Middle Ages until the late 19th century.

What the GOP and the other so-called "anti-abortionists" want to do is criminalize the religiousbelief of anyone who holds that life begins at the time of viability (or of "quickening," or at the end of the first trimester, or at any time other than the moment of conception). Yes, folks, criminalize it. They want to do nothing less than impose religious authoritarianism on our country. How do we win the abortion wars, which we have been losing all of these years? By shifting the front, from the battle for the "woman's right to choose" (which has, by giving over to the anti-abortionists the term "pro-life," created the illusion that anyone promoting or having an abortion was committing murder) to the battle for freedom of religion, as provided for in the First Amendment, and opposition to the religious authoritarianism of the Republican Religious Right.

Suddenly the issue would be changed from one solely of feminist rights (which I fully support) over what is happening to one's own body, to in addition the rights of all of us to hold religious/ethical beliefs that are indeed within the mainstream of thought of the broad population of the United States. Then, all of a sudden it's everyone's issue, not just that of women. And it is. For if the GOP, the Republican Religious Right, can criminalize a set of beliefs on when life begins, one can just imagine what might come next. Why, perhaps, criminalizing the belief that anyone other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the "correct" version of the life and death of Christ. Well, oops, not that one this year, but you know what I mean, I'm sure.



1. Lieb, D.A., Huff Post Politics: "Todd Akin Senate Bid: GOP Candidate Won't Quit Despite Intense Pressure," August 22, 2012.

2. " The Roman Catholic Church's "traditional teaching' on Abortion,"


Earlier versions of this column were published on OpEdNews,, and BuzzFlash@Truthout,