With his statement Tuesday that pregnancy from rape is God’s will, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock became the latest Republican to stumble into trouble attempting to articulate a key pro-life argument against abortion — that life begins at conception — but doing so in a way that appears insensitive to women.
And while prominent Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, quickly distanced themselves from the Indiana state treasurer, his position is basically consistent with his party’s official platform.
Mr. Mourdock, who has been locked in one of the country’s most closely watched Senate races, was asked during the final minutes of a debate with Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mr. Mourdock said. “And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Mr. Mourdock apologized Wednesday to anyone who he said might have misinterpreted his statement.
But the media firestorm again highlighted the tightrope the pro-life GOP walks regarding possible exceptions to abortion restrictions.
A slew of anti-abortion groups and activists jumped to defend Mr. Mourdock. The head of the Indiana Right to Life’s political action committee, Mike Fichter, applauded the candidate for recognizing “what our Founding Fathers wisely proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.”
The Susan B. Anthony List, dedicated to helping elect anti-abortion candidates, accused Mourdock critics of twisting his words for political gain.
“Richard Mourdock said that life is always a gift from God, and we couldn’t agree more,” said the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser. “To report his statement as an endorsement of rape is either willfully ignorant or malicious.”
Mr. Mourdock’s Democratic opponent, Mr. Donnelly, says he is morally opposed to abortion, though he has sponsored legislation that would prohibit taxpayer funding for abortions with the exception of rape and incest — a move hard-line pro-lifers suggest is hypocritical.
“It’s like saying [to me], if I had my way, you’d be dead right now,” said anti-abortion activist Rebecca Kiessling, who was born as a result of a rape. “That’s the reality of it, saying that you’re not worth it; you didn’t deserve to be protected.”
Mrs. Kiessling said that Mr. Mourdock’s comments are consistent with what most Americans believe — that God is the conduit of all life.
Yet polls consistently have shown over the years a majority of Americans think a woman should have the right to an abortion in the case of rape or incest. The percentage of Americans who say abortions should be illegal in all circumstances never has risen higher than 25 percent since the mid-1970s, according to Gallup polling.
The Republican Party, at its August convention in Tampa, Fla., approved a platform with a strong anti-abortion plank, calling for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion with no explicit exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the Republican convention platform committee, denied his party was making a judgment on a rape or incest exception, saying in August that decisions on the matter ultimately rest with the states.
Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, said she wasn’t shocked by Mr. Mourdock’s comment because it was in line with Republican doctrine.
“This appalling agenda is an entrenched part of Republican politics — and women voters know it,” she said. “That’s why in two weeks, they’re going to turn out to reject Republican attempts to roll back the clock on our basic freedoms.”
But the push for a full-abortion ban plays well with many conservative religious groups. Joshua Mercer, executive director of the CatholicVote.org Candidate Fund, said Mr. Mourdock’s abortion stance lines up with Catholic doctrine.
“There can be no doubt that Catholics in Indiana have only one pro-life candidate for the United States Senate. The men and women of CatholicVote.org are proud to stand with Richard Mourdock,” Mr. Mercer said.
Whether the rest of the Indiana electorate will support the Republican is uncertain. Michael Wolf, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, says the focus on Mr. Mourdock’s remark interferes with his attempt to portray himself as a moderate.
“Beyond the substance of the statement and its effect on voters, Mourdock has just punted his postprimary narrative of moderation,” Mr. Wolf said. “The news cycle and airwaves will be eaten up with this, rather than his appeals for the moderate Lugar voters he needs in a tight race.”
The Mourdock controversy comes about two months after the GOP was forced to deal with Republican Senate candidate Rep. W. Todd Akin of Missouri, who was widely condemned for saying that victims of “legitimate” rape are unlikely to become pregnant.
Mr. Akin, who defied calls from many party leaders to step down from the race, has slipped significantly in most polls since his comment and now trails Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
In Indiana, with both parties desperate to capture the state’s open Senate seat, don’t look for the issue to die down anytime soon.
“Victims of rape are victims of an extremely violent act, and mine is not a violent God,” said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker, who describes himself as a pro-life Catholic. “Do we need any more proof that Richard Mourdock is an extremist who’s out of touch with Hoosiers?”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.