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GOP policy is the scandal, not just Akin's comments

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
August 21, 2012 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: GOP seems to have less trouble with what Todd Akin said than the way he said it
  • He says Akin could lose Missouri race and cost GOP the Senate -- that's the unpardonable sin
  • He says GOP platform draft would enshrine no abortion stance with no exceptions
  • Avlon: Real scandal is not just stupidity of Akin's statement, but the policy that undergirds it

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

These were the words that got Rep. Todd Akin kicked to the curb by Republicans, ranging from Mitt Romney to Karl Rove to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who pronounced the comments "biologically stupid" and "bizarre" to Erin Burnett on "OutFront" on Monday night.

It's good to see conservatives stand up for sound science. But beneath the well-deserved thrashing Akin received, I get the sense that political self-interest is driving this debate more than concerns about policy or principle. The problem seems to be less what Akin said than the way he said it.

John Avlon
John Avlon

The political costs are clear: The Republican Party's chorus of disapproval came because Akin stands to lose his race in Missouri and quite possibly cost the GOP control of the Senate. This is the unpardonable sin.

Moreover, the mind-boggling concept of "legitimate rape" could be used in national races to drive a wedge between the GOP and women voters. Republicans want this election to be not about social issues, but the economy -- because that's where they can connect with independents and swing voters.

This is an implicit recognition that the social conservative positions that are effective litmus tests in Republican primary contests are political losers in general elections.

Opinion: Wake up: It's not just Akin

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Will Akin drop out of Senate race?

But not wanting to talk about social issues is not the same thing as trying to bridge these divides. Being embarrassed by Akin's comments is not the same thing as condemning those policies.

Akin was trying to articulate his opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. This is a position that vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan -- primarily a courageous fiscal conservative -- has supported throughout his career, even penning a 1,500-word essay on the subject with the eye-opening title "The Cause of Life Can't Be Severed From the Cause of Freedom."

It is this position that led Ryan to co-sponsor a bill with Akin introducing the term "forcible rape" into the lexicon -- the term Akin says he was awkwardly reaching for when he said "legitimate rape."

Opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest is a standard that Sarah Palin held, but not -- for example -- John McCain. In this same vein, the Romney campaign clarified Monday that its collective position did not include this specific provision. This is good news.

Opinion: Rape can make you pregnant. Period.

But even as the Akin controversy was escalating -- with a Tuesday 5 p.m. deadline for him to withdraw from the race -- CNN's Peter Hamby reported that the Republican Platform Committee again included in its platform draft support for a "human life amendment" to the Constitution, which would not make exceptions for victims of rape or incest or even provisions for the life of the mother.

So while this position is being roundly decried for political reasons in the case of Akin, it is simultaneously being enshrined in the official Republican platform. It is evidence that the problem is not the policies but the political damage of discussing them in public.

Akin's superficial sin of stupidity was in using the phrase "legitimate rape." But the underlying idea he went on to articulate was at least as stupid -- namely that "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

This was an attempt to explain why no common-sense exceptions should be made for victims of rape and incest. While I'd like to suggest that Akin was evincing an ironic belief in evolution -- namely that women's bodies have developed defenses against rapists -- there is little to support such hope.

Sadly and strangely, the idea that women cannot conceive during rape has been advanced by social conservatives for decades, as shown by Michelle Goldberg at The Daily Beast and Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic.

One of these articulators, attorney James Leon Holmes -- who wrote that "concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami" -- now sits as the chief judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas after being nominated by George W. Bush in 2004.

On the other side of the argument are facts -- namely that some 32,000 women conceive during rape each year, according to a study by the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Good people can disagree about the difficult moral question of abortion. But how some self-described libertarians can pretend that forcing a woman to carry her rapist's child to term is not among the most brutal forms of big government intrusion is beyond me.

That contradiction -- driven by a common sense and common decency -- is perhaps why a Gallup Poll found that 75% of Americans do not support bans on abortion when the woman is a victim of rape or incest. This is an area of broad consensus with the American people, even on this most personal and polarizing issue.

So the real scandal is not just the sincere stupidity of Akin's statement -- it is the policy that undergirds it, enshrined in the Republican National Platform. The problem is bigger than politics, and that's why it is worth discussing in this election, even when Akin is off the front pages.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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