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A Senate candidate's comment on "legitimate rape" puts the abortion debate in the spotlight

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Missouri GOP U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" have thrust the topic of abortion into the center of the nation's political debate.

Even while Republican candidates were trying to distance themselves from Akin's comments, the controversy continued, because Republican Party officials last week ratified a plank in the GOP's national platform that calls for a ban on abortion without exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, who was the odds-on favorite to win this week's Arizona GOP primary for a Senate seat, said that while he believes abortion should be illegal in nearly all cases, he supports exemptions.

"I have always, throughout my career, said that there should be exceptions for rape, for incest and for life of the mother," Flake said after a speech last week at the Pima County Republican Club. "I've received a lot of criticism from groups on the right because my position wasn't as they wanted it to be, but that's been my position, and I'm sticking with it."

But the Arizona Democratic Party has been reminding voters that Flake was one of 227 co-sponsors of the bill that Akin was discussing when he got into trouble last week.

That bill, H.R. 3, was designed to narrow the circumstances under which federal dollars could be used to pay for an abortion. Among other changes in federal law, it would have redefined "rape" to "forcible rape" in an exemption to the Hyde amendment, which blocks the use of federal funding to terminate a pregnancy.

But that provision to H.R. 3 was stripped from the bill after pro-choice advocates warned it could mean that victims of statutory rape, date rape or other nonconsensual situations would fall outside of the Hyde amendment exemption.

Flake said last week that he makes "no distinctions" between different forms of rape.

"Forcible rape seems redundant to me," Flake said. He pointed out that the language regarding "forcible rape" was stripped from the bill before it passed in the House of Representatives on May 4, 2011.

H.R. 3, which failed in the Senate, had a number of other provisions that concerned supporters of abortion rights, including new restrictions on tax deductions for insurance policies that covered abortion care, and a prohibition on paying for abortion with money that women save in private health-savings accounts.

Democrat Richard Carmona, who will face Flake in November, condemned Akin's statements that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape," calling it a "stunning display of ignorance" and pointing out that statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 32,000 pregnancies a year are a result of rape.

"This issue of forcible rape or legitimate rape—these are outrageous statements," Carmona said. "Rape is rape. It's a violation of the highest order."

Carmona said he opposed the provisions of H.R. 3.

"I'll speak to you with my hat on as (former) surgeon general of the United States," Carmona said. "Any legislation that impedes access to care for any population—in this case, women—is going to result in poorer health outcomes and a greater cost to society. ... If you deny funding, then you're denying funding to the poorest members of our society, so you're disadvantaging a population that is already poor and has few resources."

The controversy also spilled over into Southern Arizona's congressional races.

Republican Jonathan Paton, who is seeking a seat in the sprawling Congressional District 1, called on Akin to get out of the Senate race.

"Akin's comments are reprehensible and wrong, and I completely condemn them," Paton said in a statement. "There is no defense for his words, and Akin should apologize and step down as a candidate."

Paton opposes legal abortion in nearly all instances, but makes an exception for women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or who could face health issues as a result of their pregnancy.

In his answers to a 2012 questionnaire from the Center for Arizona Policy, Paton did not support exceptions for rape or incest. But he says that was an error on the part of his campaign, and he will be clarifying his position with the conservative Christian organization.

Paton's likely Democratic Party opponent, Ann Kirkpatrick, also condemned Akin's comments about "legitimate rape."

"These comments were more than a political gaffe," Kirkpatrick said via email. "They were a reminder that we need to elect common-sense leaders who will stand up for women's health issues and say no to extremists pushing an out-of-touch agenda."

The former congresswoman does not support banning abortion, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson.

"Ann is pro-choice," Johnson said via email. "She believes that medical decisions belong between a woman and her doctor, without the government interfering."

In the Congressional District 2 race, Republican candidate Martha McSally also told the Center for Arizona Policy that she opposed abortion in cases of rape and incest.

In a February interview with the Tucson Weekly, McSally sidestepped a question about abortion in cases of rape or incest, saying that "legislators are not really involved in this issue right now. We have a Supreme Court decision, and so I'll be focusing on things that the House of Representatives needs to be doing."

But last week, McSally spokesman Bruce Harvie said that McSally opposes abortion rights, but "supports exemptions for rape, incest and the life of mothers."

Harvie said that McSally would also be clarifying her stance with the Center for Arizona Policy.

Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, who will face McSally in November (barring an unlikely upset in the Tuesday, Aug. 28, primary), supports abortion rights.

"I support that (ruling) and support the right of a woman to make that decision, which is a very difficult one for the woman who has to make it," Barber told the Weekly in May. "We don't need government or anyone else making that decision."

Barber condemned Akin in a statement to reporters.

"Rep. Akin's comments are yet another attack on women's rights and their ability to make their own health-care decisions," Barber said. "This kind of extremism cannot be allowed to dictate our nation's policies. We need leaders on both sides of the aisle who will stand up for women, not turn back the clock on equality."

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