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Republican’s ‘legitimate rape’ gaffe fuels divide in U.S. sexual politics

In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 photograph, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., talks with reporters while attending the Governor's Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Mo. Akin was keeping a low profile, Monday, Aug. 20, 2012, a day after a TV interview in which he said that women's bodies can prevent pregnancies in "a legitimate rape" and that conception is rare in such cases.

Orlin Wagner/AP

When an anti-abortion candidate for the United States Senate suggested that "legitimate rape" wouldn't cause pregnancy he sparked a torrent of criticism that exposed, fully 39 years after Roe v. Wade, how sexual politics remain the hottest of hot buttons in that country.

Missouri Republican Todd Akin was a known hard-liner – so much so that Democrats reportedly supported his primary race, seeing him as the easiest opponent to defeat – but his comments in a television interview Sunday went beyond what the public seemed willing to accept.

"First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape is] really rare," he had told KTVI-TV. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

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Mr. Akin's weekend comment sparked an immediate uproar, including from Republicans.  Wading in Monday was U.S. President Barack Obama, who called the views "offensive" in an appearance at the White House briefing room.

"Rape is rape and the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn't make sense to the American people and certainly doesn't make sense to me," he said, in remarks reported by Reuters.

The idea that the female reproductive system will thwart a rape has been rebutted by Planned Parenthood and in an article published in 1996 by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. But the notion continues to pop up in socially conservative circles. The Atlantic calls it A Canard That Will Not Die and pointed to repeated instances of politicians trotting out the medically unsound claim.

In a statement, the aspiring senator wrote that he "misspoke" during the interview. The statement doesn't clearly spell out what he was disavowing or what he had meant to say. It also doesn't explain what he meant by "legitimate rape." Mr. Akin on Monday went on Mike Huckabee's national radio show to apologize for his comments.

An official with the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee said the group's head, Texas Senator John Cornyn, called Mr. Akin on Monday to tell him that the committee had withdrawn $5-million in advertising planned for the Missouri race.

The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the conversation was private.

Critics wasted no time trying to use the incident to paint the GOP as intolerant and amp up concern over this fall's election.

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Zerlinda Maxwell, writing at the New York Daily News, noted that Mr. Akin and newly minted Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan were among the co-sponsors of a bill that initially included language changing the definition of "rape" to "forcible rape." The bill, which later became the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, was adapted after public pressure.

"Linking Ryan to Akin and the idea that there is such a thing as 'legitimate rape' based on pseudo-science and folklore is something that needs to be done before the upcoming election," she wrote.

Tying the current controversy to Mitt Romney's new running mate gives additional legs to recent attempts to draw attention to Mr. Ryan's social conservative position on reproduction.

Already last week, commentators were noting a record that earned him a 100 per cent approval rating from the National Right to Life Committee. And the Sanctity of Human Life act, which he co-sponsored, was being characterized as offering states the authority to outlaw abortion and possibly giving rapists the power to sue to prevent abortion, while also potentially making in-vitro fertilization illegal.

The latter could prove particularly sticky, with at least of two of Mr. Romney's children having gone the IVF route. As a commentator at Jezebel put it : "Most awkward political bromance ever."

With a report from The Associated Press

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