Analysis Abortion

“New Life” Trumps “Existing Life” in the Modern Republican Party

Carole Joffe

Thanks to the Akin outburst, the extremist positions taken by anti-choice politicians are now finally becoming more visible to a larger public.

“I believe that if you have to choose between new life and existing life, you should choose new life. The person who has had an opportunity to live at least has been given that gift by God and should make way for new life on earth.”

These are the words of the late Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a driving force behind the creation of the movement we know today as the Religious Right. As the above quote implies, Weyrich had no patience for those in anti-choice circles who advocated for an abortion exception when the life of the pregnant woman was threatened.

This sentiment, voiced by Weyrich in 1984, has never entirely disappeared from some sectors of the anti-choice movement, though for quite some time, it was not a position widely spoken of. This is hardly surprising given that a huge majority of Americans support access to abortion in life-threatening situations.   

However, the Republican Party’s official platform is one place where the absolute ban on any exceptions, including one to save a woman’s life, is retained. John McCain, as the presidential candidate in 2008, tried to change this to include exceptions for rape, incest and threats to a woman’s life, but was unsuccessful. The 2012 Platform just adopted by Republicans retains identical language as previous ones.

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Yet another place where the Weyrich legacy of indifference to real women’s lives has recently reappeared is the Orwellian-named “Protect Life Act,” (H.R.358) passed by Congress in fall 2011 by a vote of 251-172, including 15 Democrats who voted with the majority. This bill, among other things, stipulates that hospitals may “exercise their conscience” and refuse abortions to women in life-threatening conditions. Till the Akin scandal, politicians could vote for such a jaw-dropping bill, hoping that no one but their adamantly pro-life constituents-–ready to “score” each abortion-related vote in Congress–would notice. And those legislators who actually don’t relish the thought of women dying in hospital corridors while family members plead and hospital staff argue, could rest easy that a Democratic-controlled Senate, let alone President Obama, would never let such legislation go forward.

But the Akin outburst has changed all this. The extremist positions taken by anti-choice  politicians are now finally becoming more visible to a larger public. Akin’s loony claim that “legitimate rape” can’t lead to pregnancy may not be widely shared, but refusal to allow abortion in cases of rape and incest has in fact become the new normal for those courting anti-choice votes, a position that expanded considerably when Sarah Palin entered the national stage in 2008. But Palin herself is on record as accepting abortions in the case of threats to a woman’s life. That 251 legislators were willing to vote for the “Protect Life Act” (or, as known in prochoice circles, as the “Let Women Die” act) suggests that the Weyrich position of absolutism has, after 25 years, finally triumphed.

This newfound attention to what politicians in thrall to the antiabortion movement have done poses obvious problems for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. With respect to the latter, the American people are now learning that this leading light of economic conservativism also voted for H.R. 358 and numerous other abortion provisions, including the bill containing the  notorious “forcible rape” language. And, of course, Romney and Ryan on a party platform that allows no exceptions to save the life of a pregnant woman.

To be sure, in normal times, the actual details of a party platform would not draw much attention. Nor would the minutiae of the numerous bills a vice-presidential candidate voted on while in Congress. But thanks to Todd Akin, these are not normal times. The attention that Akin’s remarks have brought to positions shared so broadly by others in his party, including the vice-presidential candidate, has vindicated those abortion rights supporters who have often been accused, even by sympathizers, of exaggeration and “shrillness” in their warnings of what anti-choice politicians were capable. Hopefully many Americans will now ponder what will become of their loved ones, or themselves, in a country where the Republican Party platform is made real by true believers.

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