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."

Screen Shot 2012-10-25 at 4.02.05 PM.png

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.

* * *

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.

That rape violates women's rights is not a universally agreed-on proposition. There are cultures in which women are married off against their will to men they do not chose, and cultures in which women who are raped are salvaged socially only if the rapist marries them, thereby taking their damaged goods out of the sexual marketplace. There are cultures where grown men marry female children, and cultures where girls who have not yet learned to speak are pledged to others of their parents' choice. There are cultures where women remain property, and are bought and sold, even by their parents, because the culture accords them only sexual value.

In America, we object to and do not permit any of these approaches, because of what they violate: the right to be free from harm, the right of bodily integrity, the right to sexual autonomy, and, most importantly, the right of a woman to belong to herself and not be able to be claimed as property by a masculine act against her, or by anyone, ever.

Screen Shot 2012-10-25 at 5.11.23 PM.png

Men fought against those who advocated women's rights for close to 500 years in the West by calling them and their vision of female access to these rights -- along with the right to be educated, critically, and to have the same suffrage and property rights as men -- a violation of nature, or even, as one late-19th century American jurist described the idea of a woman lawyer, a "treason against nature." And the critics were not entirely wrong. Women's rights are unnatural, if you think about it -- our natural lot the world over through most of documented human history has been subjection without autonomy or freedom. Coercive sexuality and rape are part of that system of subjection, and sexual coercion occurs in nonhuman primate populations, as well, where -- depending on the species -- it may well persist because it is an effective male reproductive strategy.

But what is natural and what is good and just are not the same. America itself is a rejection of nature, if you believe what many have argued, that the natural form of human social organization is the unjust rule of the few over the many, as the natural aristocracy of talent gives way to rule by heirs. America's genius has lain in moving away from the rule and exploitation of the many by the few toward a more equitable mode of social organization in the name of justice and equality and universal rights.

But as with the Divine Right of Kings that for centuries gave power to monarchs, too often we still see what is natural and avaricious and what is godly conflated.

According to Mourdock's thinking, a man who forces a woman to have sex with him against her will is a criminal, but a man who forces a woman to bear his child through forced sex should be permitted to do so, because abortion is murder and every conceived child is a gift from God.

The idea that coerced reproduction is God's will is of a piece with the belief that the subjection of women is God's will. The two ideas are inextricably intertwined historically, and the former is stubbornly resilient relic of the latter. To unpack this a bit more: According to Mourdock's thinking, a man who forces a woman to have sex with him against her will is a criminal, but a man who forces a woman to bear his child through forced sex should be permitted to do so, because abortion is murder and every conceived child is a gift from God.

Do we want to live in a country where any man at any time can decide he wants to bear children with any woman and she has no right to stop that from happening if he can overpower her by force? If we do -- and that's the society Mourdock is advocating -- then we have immediately left the society the feminists constructed and re-entered one where coerced mating is rewarded reproductively.

Women's advocates -- a group that today includes a substantial fraction of the country, whether they know it or not -- believe that women can decide on their own if they feel strong enough in the wake of a rape to care for a child that is part them and part the person who sought to depersonalize them and take pleasure in their suffering and humiliation. After all, pregnancy is no easy business despite modern medicine; giving a child up for adoption is potentially traumatic; and to unexpectedly become a single mother (80 percent of women sexually assaulted are under 30 and the average age of women at first marriage in this country is almost 27) is hugely life-altering, not to mention expensive, proposition.

In addition to increasing female autonomy, the major issue behind the drive for legalized abortion was how unsafe the procedure was on the underground market; everywhere in the world where abortion is illegal it takes place, even so. But it is often a deadly or physically damaging operation because of this. The question for feminists was how much risk and suffering women who were going to seek abortions anyway were required to undergo to obtain the relief they sought. Feminists succeeded in legalizing the procedure with a legal strategy that did not fully encompass the philosophical underpinnings of their support for abortion rights, but which made it markedly safer. Abortion-related deaths plummeted after abortion laws were liberalized in 15 states in 1970 -- declining dramatically even before Roe V. Wade was decided, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The drive to restrict abortion in the United States in recent years has done little to decrease demand but has effectively ratcheted up the misery quotient for women who seek the procedure in many states. People who share Mourdock's views believe it is right and ethical that women should suffer even more should they wish to have control over whom they bear children with.

Romney has said he supports exemptions for rape and incest in the abortion-rights rollbacks he also seeks; Paul Ryan shares the Mourdock view but as Romney's vice-presidential running-mate has said it is Romney's view that matters.

If the experience in this country with Medicaid-funded abortion in case of rape is an example -- and it may not be -- the whole issue of rape exemptions is a red herring, because the exemptions don't really work to help the women seeking abortions under them. Only 37 percent of women who quality for Medicaid funding for abortion under rape or health exemptions ultimately have procedures funded by the program.

It's all well and good to talk about respect for Mourdock's beliefs as he proclaims his ambition to impose them on people who disagree with him. But we ought also to recall the vision of women's place in the world they would to resurrect, if ever permitted to become law.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.