The U.S. election campaign's sudden focus on reproductive rights threatens to undermine Republican nominee Mitt Romney's attempts to shrink the gap with President Barack Obama among female voters and could even upend his agenda for the GOP convention.
As Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin refused Mr. Romney's Tuesday call to quit the race following his controversial remarks about rape, a key party unit moved to include a strict anti-abortion provision in the GOP platform.
The provision, to be formally adopted at next week's convention, calls for a constitutional ban on all abortions and contradicts Mr. Romney's position, which allows for the procedure in cases of rape and incest.
Mr. Romney hoped the party gathering would underscore his laser focus on the economy. Now, it risks exposing rifts within the party over social issues.
"Romney has just completely lost control of the agenda," said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It is probably going to solidify the gender gap in Obama's favour by double digits."
The injection of the abortion debate could hurt Mr. Romney as he tries to cut into Mr. Obama's lead among female voters. The President leads Mr. Romney among women by eight percentage points, according to the most recent Gallup tracking poll. Other polls show a larger gap, one that could widen as this week's abortion debate is digested by voters.
To win, Mr. Romney particularly needs to boost his support among married, suburban women. While they are mostly concerned with bread-and-butter issues, they could be turned off by renewed Republican talk of repealing existing abortion rights. Mr. Romney's insistence that he would not try to change current abortion laws may not be enough for them in light of Mr. Akin's comments and the latest party platform.
They may also reject the idea of male politicians such as Mr. Akin trying to dictate their reproductive rights, a sentiment Mr. Obama sought to exploit on Monday.
"What I think [Mr. Akin's] comments do is underscore why we shouldn't have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health-care decisions on behalf of women," the President told reporters.
The GOP committee's step to call for a "human life amendment" to the U.S. Constitution, which would effectively render abortion illegal in all circumstances, was not unexpected. A similar provision has been a staple of previous party platforms.
The timing of the move, however, draws further attention to an issue Mr. Romney has tried to avoid as he seeks to concentrate his campaign on the fragile economy and ballooning federal debt. The plan went awry on Monday after Mr. Akin asserted that women can physically reject an unwanted pregnancy if they are victims of a "legitimate" rape – making exceptions to an outright ban on abortion unnecessary.
The remark by Mr. Akin, a Missouri congressman who has rebuked calls from Mr. Romney and other Republican leaders to drop out of his state's Senate race, has shone a spotlight on a point of view that has wide currency among the religious right.
Republican organizers had been determined to keep Mr. Romney's campaign focused on the economy and federal deficit, even providing for the installation of a "debt clock" at next week's convention in Tampa, Fla. Speakers who risked veering off topic, but whose presence could satisfy segments of the party base, were given slots outside of prime time.
Yet, the meticulous stagecraft may be for naught as Mr. Romney spends the days leading up to the convention attempting to reassure women about their reproductive rights. He has reiterated that he and running mate Paul Ryan are in favour of exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest or when a woman's life is in danger.
That assertion, however, does not square with Mr. Ryan's long-held support for an outright ban on abortion, a point Democrats have underscored repeatedly.
Mr. Obama seized on Republican attempts to pass legislation that would limit federal abortion funding to victims of "forcible" rape, a categorization that echoes Mr. Akin's reference to "legitimate" rape. Mr. Ryan co-sponsored that legislation.
"Rape is rape," Mr. Obama said. "And the idea we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we're talking about doesn't make sense to the American people and certainly doesn't make sense to me."
Mr. Romney has largely taken a hands-off approach to the abortion issue throughout his career, vowing to refrain from imposing his personal views through legislation. Not so for Mr. Ryan. His views on social issues have been overshadowed by his hawkish stand on fiscal issues. But Democrats are eager to draw attention to his 2010 assertion that he would never accept a "truce" on social issues.
"I'm as pro-life as a person gets," Mr. Ryan told The Weekly Standard then. "You're never going to have a truce. … Issues come up, they're unavoidable."
Mr. Romney, to his chagrin, is discovering that now.