When Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia became the latest Republican politician to tie himself into a pretzel talking about “legitimate rape” last week, Democrats in Washington couldn’t help but smile. They were watching a repeat episode of what has emerged as one of their party’s most reliable political hits in recent years: a conservative Republican knotted up by his own words trying to talk about rape, pregnancy, and abortion. Gingrey, an ob-gyn who has delivered more than 5,000 babies, wasn’t the likeliest candidate for such a slipup. But there was the cochair of the GOP Doctors Caucus, defending former colleague Todd Akin’s claim that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” and not get pregnant. Gingrey said Akin was “partly right.”
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists objected. Republican leaders groaned. Gingrey backtracked, saying he was misconstrued. And the counter on the dayswithoutagoprapemention.com website, created by Democratic operative Matt Ortega, was reset to zero. More than 10,000 people have linked to the site through Facebook.
It wasn’t always this way. For years, Republicans had commandeered the abortion debate, painting Democrats into a corner as extremists by forcing them to defend some of the least popular (and least common, although they usually left that part out) procedures, most notably late-term “partial-birth” abortions. It wasn’t so long ago that the House, with some Democratic support, mustered a two-thirds vote to override President Clinton’s veto of a ban on such procedures.
But Democrats have found a way to flip the script in the abortion debate, adopting the very tactics pioneered and perfected by the GOP. Now, Democrats are forcing a growing number of Republicans to defend their stance that all abortions should be outlawed, even in the relatively rare (but, again, they usually leave out that part) cases of rape and incest.
And Gingrey was just the latest actor cast as an extremist in that drama.
In Nevada, GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle talked about counseling young rape victims away from abortions in 2010, describing it as turning a “lemon situation into lemonade.” She lost. Republican Ken Buck stumbled over the matter en route to losing his Senate bid in Colorado the same year. Missouri’s Akin frittered away the GOP’s shot at a Senate seat with his “legitimate rape” comment last year. And Richard Mourdock, the GOP Senate standard-bearer in Indiana in 2012, stirred controversy when he said a pregnancy resulting from rape was “a gift from God.” He lost, too.
Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group, said that Republicans had dug their own hole. “It hasn’t been that our side has brought up the issue of rape and incest,” Keenan said. “They brought this on themselves, and we responded to say how outrageous this was.”
That, of course, is not how Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, sees it. “There is no question there is an atmosphere of trap-making,” she said. The repeated stumbles are enough of a concern that antiabortion groups are planning new training to help GOP candidates talk about the topic. Democrats, Dannenfelser said, can be expected to continue to harp on rape and incest cases “because it’s the perfect way to frame their issue and to make the other side look like monsters.”
“Yes, they are getting smarter,” she admitted of Democrats. “The smart players always communicate on the opponent’s narrow ground.”
The two sides even disagree vehemently about the extent to which abortion in the case of rape is actually a policy under debate. Keenan and others point to a 2011 House GOP bill that she said sought to “redefine rape” by attaching the term “forcible” to it. The phrase was eventually stripped from the bill. Dannenfelser and others, including David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, counter that no Republican lawmakers are seriously pushing to stop abortions in the case of rape or incest, even if they support such a position personally.
Politically, that’s almost beside the point. Democratic strategists believe the public has adopted their party’s frame: The GOP is out to invade women’s privacy and end abortions for everyone. That is the cumulative impact of repeated Republican efforts in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood and reduce access to contraception, along with controversial state proposals such as requiring ultrasound for those considering an abortion in Virginia, said Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“It’s not just about choice,” Cecil said in an interview after the November elections. “It symbolizes to a whole host of people how extreme the Republican Party has become.” He noted that in the closing weeks of the Senate race in Virginia, both the DSCC and Democrat Tim Kaine’s campaign aired ads related to abortion.
Talking about abortion is, in other words, a way that Democrats believe they can simultaneously appeal to the political middle and their base. EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, has surged from fewer than 400,000 members to more than 2 million since 2010. “We had a hard time going for a week without a Republican saying something really appalling about women,” said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the group.
Gary Bauer, a social conservative, said, “There is not particularly an explanation other than the ineptitude of candidates” for the recent string of Republican flubs. Democrats have focused on the “hard cases” of abortion—rape, incest, life of the pregnant woman—for 40 years, he said, but today’s GOP has been too reluctant to proactively talk about “life issues.”
“I think the smarter people in the [Democratic] Party know they have a real vulnerability on this issue,” Bauer said. “And unlike some folks in my party, they know the best defense is to go on offense.”
It is a lesson they learned from the GOP.
This article appears in the January 19, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as The Abortion Trap.