Rep. Todd Akin’s (R., Mo.) controversial remarks about abortion last weekend have provided ammunition for the Democratic Party’s ongoing effort to smear the Republican presidential ticket as "extreme" on social issues.
Despite the Obama campaign’s stated desire to run a positive campaign focused on economic issues in the midst of the worst recovery in American history, Democrats and their allies began attacking GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan on abortion weeks before Akin made his inflammatory comments.
The most-aired Obama campaign ad between July 24 and August 6 was a spot accusing Romney of being "out of touch" on women’s issues and claiming the former Massachusetts governor once backed a bill to "outlaw all abortion, even in case of rape and incest."
The latter charge, which earned a "Pants on Fire" rating from the independent fact-checking website, PolitiFact, has been misleadingly leveled against Romney’s running mate as well.
Ryan, like Romney, has never endorsed a bill or law banning abortion in the case of rape or incest. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported 14 years ago that Ryan supported exemptions on abortion only when the life of the mother is at stake, but included indirect quotations. The Washington Free Beacon found no examples of Ryan directly enunciating this position over the course of his career. As his party's nominee for vice president, Ryan has adopted the positions of Mitt Romney, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother.
The Obama campaign has also accused Ryan of trying to "redefine rape," citing his support for a bill that would prohibit federal funding for abortions resulting from statutory rape, which is in keeping with the spirit of the Hyde amendment, a long-standing provision governing the use of federal funds for abortions.
The bill, known as the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, simply would make explicit a funding restriction that is, in practice, already the law of the land. Furthermore, the controversial language regarding "forcible rape"—a common legal definition—was ultimately dropped from the bill.
Sixteen House Democrats joined 235 Republicans to pass the bill in May 2011.
Ryan has been further accused of voting to "outlaw birth control" and criminalize in vitro fertilization. Ryan’s opponents correctly note that he co-sponsored a bill—The Sanctity of Human Life Act—that would grant Congress and state governments "the authority to protect the lives [beginning at conception] of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions."
Though some Ryan critics, such as left-wing blogger Greg Sargent, have acknowledged that the bill itself would not "outlaw" anything, others have defended such accusations by noting that, in theory, the act could be construed to allow state governments to ban abortion or even in vitro fertilization procedures, in the unlikely event that such measures could pass a state legislature or be approved by voters. (Ultra-conservative Mississippi sought to pass such a measure by referendum in 2011, but it was easily defeated.)
The anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) criticized the media’s portrayal of the legislation in a statement Monday.
"Much has been made of Congressman Paul Ryan's cosponsorship of the ‘Sanctity of Human Life Act,’" the group wrote. "It does not contain any prohibition of anything, or any penalty for anything. The details of implementing such a principle, including the type and definition of exceptions to any enacted law protecting unborn children, would have to be contained in language enacted by elected legislators—generally reflecting, presumably, the majority views of their constituents."
NRLC president Carol Tobias accused the news media of "once again demonstrating its eagerness to use any excuse to portray a Republican presidential ticket as out of the mainstream on abortion."
The misleading characterization of Ryan's abortion stance also does not comport with public opinion. A May 2012 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of Americans identified as "pro-life," compared to 41 percent who identified as "pro-choice."
Ryan, who is the first Catholic to appear on a Republican presidential ticket, has been accused of being a "bad Catholic" for his position on economic issues, which critics claim are harmful to the poor and elderly.
The campaign to discredit Ryan’s religious beliefs is being driven by left-wing "Catholic" groups funded by billionaire financier George Soros, the Washington Free Beacon has reported.
William McGurn argued in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that such attacks on Ryan represent the extent to which liberal Catholics who oppose church doctrine on abortion have "substituted political for religious orthodoxy."
This attitude is exemplified by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D., Calif.) remarks in 2011 that Catholics (she is one) needed to get over their "conscience thing" when it comes to abortion.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said the difference between Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden, who is also a Catholic, is stark.
"The Catholic Church opposes abortion and gay marriage," Donahue said in a statement. "On both of these issues, Biden disagrees with the Church."
In regard to economic policy, Donohue said, it is disingenuous to say that either Biden or Ryan adheres more to Catholic teaching.
"In effect, both Biden and Ryan can plausibly maintain that he is a champion of the poor," he wrote. "But only one, Ryan, can be identified as the champion of the unborn."
Catholic voters are a crucial constituency in presidential elections. President Obama, who won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008 (though only 47 percent of white Catholics), has seen his support in that demographic dwindle of late. Republicans won the nation-wide Catholic vote in the 2010 midterm elections.
A May 2012 Gallup poll found Romney and Obama tied at 46 percent among Catholics, with Romney leading 55 percent to 38 percent among white Catholics.
National Right to Life president Tobias argued the media’s coverage over the past several days merely highlighted the lengths to which the president’s defenders have gone to distract from his own record on abortion, which includes his opposition to several versions of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, an Illinois bill granting legal protections for babies that survived abortions.