Much of the Republican 2016 Field Has Actually Moved to the Right on Abortion

Three years ago this week, Todd Akin made his memorable remark about “legitimate rape.” Have Republican politicians become better at speaking about women’s bodies?

Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The pope went to Paraguay last month, and called the corruption there the “gangrene of a people.” The small, religious country of swamp, scrubland, and savanna is not one that often makes its way into American discussions of policy. But on Sunday, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican candidate for president, expressed his support for Paraguay’s restrictive abortion laws—even when it means that a child impregnated by rape is forced to give birth.

The last presidential election illuminated a stark gender gap; Mitt Romney was victorious among male voters, but lost among women by 11 percentage points. Among single women, he lost by 36 points. The following year, the National Republican Congressional Committee, wanting to improve on these numbers—and avoid repeating damaging lines like former Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s on “legitimate rape,” uttered three years ago this week—held sessions with Republican aides on how to talk to and about women. Speaker John Boehner noted that, “when you look around the Congress, there are a lot more females in the Democrat caucus than there are in the Republican caucus.” He encouraged members of Congress to “be a little more sensitive.”

In the 2014 midterm election, the Republican Party may have seen gains, but, according to exit poll data, the gap between voting preferences of men and women continued to increase, becoming bigger than it had been in 20 years.

Three out of four Americans say a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion if she becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, in 1973, not a single Republican presidential nominee has opposed exceptions to abortion in cases of incest, rape, or threat to the life of the mother. 

Until now. As we roll toward the 2016 presidential election, the Republican Party seems to have undergone a vigorous rightward turn on the subject of abortion. Whether because of deeply held beliefs or the tactical imperatives of the GOP's primary season, many of the candidates are taking surprisingly unyielding positions—ones that are well out of the current American mainstream. 

On CNN’s State of the Union, host Dana Bash asked Huckabee his thoughts on the law in Paraguay, where abortion is illegal unless the life of the pregnant woman is at risk. In the news was the plight of a girl who became pregnant at 10 after being repeatedly raped (her stepfather has been arrested and is awaiting trial), whom government authorities did not allow to have an abortion. Last Thursday, the girl, who is now 11, gave birth via cesarean section.

“If you're president and you have your druthers,” Bash said, “that would be the policy here. Some of your Republican opponents say it’s too extreme. What do you say?”

Huckabee did not take a beat. “I think what we have to do, Dana, is remember that creating one problem that is horrible—I mean, let nobody be misled, a 10-year-old girl being raped is horrible—but does it solve the problem by taking the life of an innocent child?” He then mentioned his former employer James Robison, a televangelist and the founder of the Christian relief group Life Outreach International, who was conceived by rape. So glorious good can come from bad.

Opponents of abortion access often frame the issue of abortion around life and the potential of the unborn child. (Review several statements at the National Right to Life Convention last month: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal: “We can’t declare victory until every life, the unborn, as well as the elderly, the disabled; every human life is welcomed and celebrated in our country, in our culture.” Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush: “We need to protect innocent life in every aspect.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz: “There is no more precious, more fundamental right than the right to life.”) That’s why Huckabee rolled out Robison, to show that rape can result in admirable human beings. (He’s adopted this tack before. “Ethel Waters, for example,” he said on his syndicated radio program some years ago, “was the result of a forcible rape,” emphasis added. Then Robison again. A stable in his mind of exemplary examples.)

It’s not that Republican politicians always overlook the plight of the person who bears a womb, however, in favor of the person a womb might bear. But in the way that certain candidates speak of women facing the prospect of abortion, there is a presumptiveness, a kind of Candidate Knows Best.

Huckabee acknowledged the tragedy of the young girl’s situation in Paraguay. “It isn’t easy,” he said. But, he told Bash, “we sometimes miss the fact that, when an abortion happens, there are two victims. One is the child, the other is that birth mother, who often will go through extraordinary guilt years later when she begins to think through what happened with the baby, with her.”

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has also evinced this kind of insight, finding mechanisms to helping women to make the decision that’s best for them. He said in July at the National Right to Life Convention in New Orleans that no one’s got a better record on abortion. “We passed a parental notification law,” he said. “I signed a parental consent law. I signed a sonogram law so mothers facing that agonizing choice can actually see.”

At the same gathering, Florida Senator Marco Rubio articulated “the idea that a woman has a right to do anything she wants with her body,” saying, “Let’s recognize right now that there is a fundamental right to control your body.” But he added, “There is also another right: the right to life. Put another way, the child also has a right to his or her body.” He wove a story of what he called “two rights in conflict with one another,” in the end finding beauty in how a mother’s life can be improved by having a child:

Today, somewhere in Florida, a young single mother will give birth to her first child. Maybe she comes from a broken home, or maybe, even worse, she has grown up bouncing from one foster home to the next. In either case, she’s probably grown up in poverty, trapped in failing schools. She reads at a low reading level. She never graduated high school. Lost and alone, she has spent the better part of her young life in search of someone to love her. And, in that quest, she has been in and out of a series of relationships with irresponsible and abusive men, including the now absent father of her new child. While she receives a significant amount of public assistance, it has done little to improve her life. She is trapped in poverty. Up to this point in her life, little has gone right for her. But today, her life has changed forever. Today, she held her firstborn child in her arms for the first time. And at that moment, she was no different than parents all over the world, rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged alike. Today, when she looked into the eyes of her child for the first time, she saw what your mother saw in your eyes and what my mother saw in mine. She saw all the hopes and dreams she once had for herself. And in her heart burns the hope that everything that has gone wrong in her life will go right for that child, that all the opportunities she never had, her child will.

Again, an imagining of a woman’s internal thinking—one that could only follow his policy line.

Bush, the other-than-Trump presumed front-runner, is considerably to the right of his brother, former President George W. Bush, on abortion. In 2003, he intervened to ask a court to appoint a guardian for the fetus of a mentally-disabled rape victim. Whereas his rhetoric on this issue has been more muted, it often seems he's trying to choreograph the same message while trying to conceal it.

During the first Republican presidential debate on Fox, the co-moderator Megyn Kelly asked Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker about his position. “Would you really let a mother die,” she said, with stress on the word, “rather than let her have an abortion? And with 83 percent of the American public in favor of a ‘life exception,’ are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?” Walker replied, “I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother.” No budging there.

After the debate, Kelly herself became a point of controversy among the Republican camp, when Donald Trump remarked, about Kelly’s tough questioning during the debate, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.

All of a sudden, menstruation became the top political news story of the weekend. That Trump may have insinuated Kelly’s vagina was an outrage. The entire Republican pack took turns denouncing his comments, defending Kelly’s honor. Surely a woman’s private parts were not fit for discussion—only as a site for policy. 

Tellingly, of all the GOP candidates, only one seems to have moderated his rhetoric on abortion.

Earlier this year, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said that his focus in the 2012 presidential election, on social conservative issues like his anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage stances, was “crazy stuff that doesn't have to do with anything.” He faulted himself for opening his mouth and, in his words, unleashing “dumb things” as a part of why his campaign did not eventually succeed. These statements included the comment, on “Piers Morgan Tonight,” that “you can make the argument that if she doesn't have this baby, if she kills her child, that that, too, could ruin her life.”

It isn’t that he’s softened his stance, per se, but it would appear that Santorum, in terms of strategy, rhetoric, discussion of women, learned a lesson in 2012. The question now is whether is whether his Republican adversaries will have to learn it in 2016.