Commentary: The National GOP’s Mourdock Moment
By Mary Beth Schneider
INDIANAPOLIS—The 2012 Senate debate between Republican Richard Mourdock and Democrat Joe Donnelly had been basically a snooze.
Both responded with programmed predictable answers to everything. And as both claimed anti-abortion positions, no one foresaw that the question on abortion in the debate’s final minutes would change that.
Donnelly, as always, said he opposed abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
That had been Mourdock’s position in his 1990 failed run for Congress. So what he said in 2012, and how he said it, made reporters’ heads snap up, and had them quickly rewriting their stories not only on the debate but on the likely outcome of the election.
“Life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”
Thirteen days later, Mourdock was crushed by Donnelly even as other Republicans swept to victory in Indiana.
Fast forward to 2019. The Republican Party is now echoing Mourdock’s words. Alabama has just enacted a law that criminalizes almost all abortions. Rape victim? You must carry that rapist’s child. A girl raped by her father? Too bad.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey came close to echoing Mourdock’s words as she signed the bill into law. “This legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God,” she said.
So apparently God, sad as He is about a rape, thinks a gift of pregnancy is just what a woman needs.
And make no mistake. This isn’t solely about saying life begins at conception, that moment when the sperm fertilizes the egg. Alabama and every other state have no problem throwing out unused fertilized eggs from in-vitro procedures.
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, the sponsor of the Alabama bill, said: “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.”
Since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion, even those who oppose abortion generally left the three exceptions of rape, incest and medical necessity. That, though, has been changing even before Mourdock’s words sank his candidacy. The GOP national platform that year affirmed the party’s opposition to abortion, but listed no exceptions at all, not even to save the mother’s life.
Platforms, though, get almost no attention. A candidate’s words in the closing days of a campaign? A law now on the books? Those have a way of focusing on voters’ attention.
And boy has it. Alabama’s law—as well as laws passed in Ohio and Georgia, and legislation pending in Missouri—has sparked a national firestorm. For some anti-abortion advocates, it is what they have been praying for. But for many women who have voted Republican because of fiscal and other policy issues, comfortable that Roe v. Wade would never be overturned, it’s a wake-up moment that has the potential to affect elections.
Multiple polls show that majorities of Americans favor restrictions on abortion, especially for later-term abortions. But polls also find large majorities support allowing victims of rape and incest to terminate pregnancies and do not want Roe v. Wade overturned.
In fact, televangelist Pat Robertson—a staunch abortion foe—said Alabama’s law went too far, citing the fact that it does not exempt rape and incest victims as well as the provision that would send physicians who perform abortions to prison for up to 99 years.
When I first started covering Indiana politics in the early 1990s, the state GOP platform did not mention abortion. I spoke to many Republican women who called themselves pro-life—but who were leery of letting the government make such a personal decision.
Ever since, though, the party has been firmly anti-abortion.
Now, the GOP may be having its Mourdock moment, the moment when its voters who generally oppose abortion in most cases have to decide if the only exception is to save a woman’s life and whether they are comfortable overturning Roe v Wade.
For a party who lost the votes of women in 2018 by an astounding 19 percentage points according to national exit polling data, it’s a daunting prospect.
FOOTNOTE: Mary Beth Schneider is an editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.