Rape and abortion have become major flashpoints this election cycle because they are where two incompatible views of women's place collide.
Mitt Romney and Richard Mourdock are doubtless both hoping we're nearing the end of the news cycle in which the Indiana U.S. Senate candidate's remarks that pregnancies from rape are "something that God intended to happen" exploded into the national conversation. But if Democrats have any say in the matter, that won't be the case, as the president and his campaign have highlighted the remarks repeatedly in an attempt to create a wedge issue for women voters 11 days before an election that could be decided by the size of the gender gap.
Discussing his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest while speaking at debate against Democrat Joe Donnelly, who also opposes abortion, though with exceptions, Mourdock said Tuesday night: "I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
He went on to use his opposition to all abortions, except to save the life of the mother, as a wedge to attack Obamacare for impinging on "religious freedom" by requiring insurance to cover contraception for women. Mourdock, the state's treasurer, beat incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary this past spring, and he's since received the support of both Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, which he has featured prominently on his Facebook page.
On Monday, Romney released a TV advertisement endorsing Mourdock -- the only such video he has cut for a Senate campaign since being nominated as the Republican presidential standard-bearer.
Mourdock has tried to walk back his remarks to some extent while defending his hard-line anti-abortion views. "Are you trying to suggest that somehow I think God ordained or pre-ordained rape? No, I don't think that anyone could suggest that. That's a sick, twisted -- no, that's not even close to what I said," he told reporters immediately following the debate, according to the Evansville Courier & Press.
"It is a fundamental part of my faith that God gives us life. God determines when life begins," Mourdock said. "I believe in an almighty God who makes those calls. ... There are some things in life that are above my pay grade."
The Romney campaign has tried to distance itself from the Indiana conservative without alienating its own base, which has left it in the awkward position of disavowing Mourdock's views without in any way stepping away from him. "Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock, and Mr. Mourdock's comments do not reflect Gov. Romney's views," Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul said. "We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him."
Summarizing the views of many frustrated pro-choice women, comedian Tina Fey told an audience at a benefit for the Center for Reproductive Rights Wednesday night: "if I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I'm gonna lose my mind!"
While the Democrats push the issue to turn out pro-choice women -- President Obama tweeted about it three times Wednesday and told Jay Leno "I don't know how these guys come up with these ideas.... rape is rape," then returned to the topic Thursday in remarks and in tweets (at right) -- and the Romney campaign stands by its anti-abortion man out of its own need for the anti-abortion base to turn out on November 6, it's worth taking a step back to examine what it is we're really talking about and why it is that rape and abortion have become such flashpoints during campaign 2012.
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Coerced and not entirely voluntary mating have occurred throughout human history. I had a friend many years ago whose mother was a prize of war in a national conflict; it made for complicated family dynamics. But one sees rape, forced marriage and war go hand in hand throughout the ages, including our own; it is another form of conquest to create the next generation in your image from the bodies of the conquered. Violating women is a way of subjugating a population -- sowing fear among the women, blocking the men from access to the future, and rupturing and weakening all the social bonds that made up the society that fought and lost. But for this to work there must also be children of rape. "If one group wants to control another they often do it by impregnating women of the other community because they see it as a way of destroying the opposing community," former head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International Gita Sahgal has explained. Women must learn to love the image of their conquerors written in the faces of the children they suckle, and to despise themselves, and their weakness. If captives come to identify with those who hold them, it is only a tale as old as our ability to survive by orienting our beings around whoever has power over us.
This is one reason Missouri Republican U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's mid-August comments that "if it's a legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" set off such a firestorm -- his beliefs showed deep biological and historical ignorance about the way rape-created pregnancies have been used to transform and dominate whole populations. But in his denial of the possibility of rape-created pregnancy he was acknowledging the truth that would erupt again into public view with Mourdock's remarks: Post-rape pregnancies are where blanket anti-abortion views become de facto support for coercive mating and the legally sanctioned denial of agency to women not only on the question of whether to have a child, but who the child's father should be.
"If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I'm gonna lose my mind!"
Outside of the context of war, rape historically has been something more akin to a property crime than a crime against women per se -- the injured party was the husband or father to whom the woman belonged, and recompense for the crime was made to him for the injury to his standing and damage to the marital or social value of the woman. It was also an honor crime, and in large parts of the world rape continues to be seen as one for which women bear primary responsibility. As such being raped is viewed as a female sexual transgression that creates a justification or even obligation for male relatives and community members to shun the assaulted, or, rarely, even avenge familial honor by killing victims.
In contemporary America we reject rape because we believe that women have rights as individuals, and our present-day understanding of rape owes much to the successful efforts of Second Wave feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s to reform rape laws and transform American thinking on the topic as part of expanding women's rights and capacity for independent living in general. The right to privacy is what created the legal framework for access to contraception in America, but the push for reproductive rights came more from a feminist demand for respect for bodily integrity and individual autonomy. This same push for individual control of anatomical processes -- and against regulations that were harming women, as those that made abortion illegal did by forcing women seeking abortions into potentially deadly facilities -- underlay the movements for abortion rights and against rape. There is "no full human dignity and personhood possible for women until we demand the control over our own bodies," Betty Friedan declared at the First National Conference on Abortion Laws in Chicago in 1969.