Elections 2012: Abortion Rights Resurfaces as an Election Issue

The politics of abortion continues to surface in this year’s presidential race, something that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney hoped to avoid. He told The Des Moines Register earlier this month that “there’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”

But Romney can’t keep abortion off the agenda.

The Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Indiana, Richard Mourdock, said during a debate Tuesday he does not support abortions in the case of rape. “I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

That is not Romney’s position; he favors abortion exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest. But he’s also running Indiana TV ads supporting Mourdock.

On The Tonight Show, President Barack Obama jumped into the debate. “You know, I don’t know how these guys come up with these ideas,” Obama told Jay Leno. “Rape is rape. It is a crime. And so, these various distinctions about rape and – you know – don’t make too much sense to me. … The second thing this underscores, though, this is exactly why you don’t want a bunch of politicians – mostly male – making decisions about women’s health care decisions.”

Democrats say that Romney is trying to take a moderate stand on abortion rights. Now.

Politifact – a fact-checking site – says Romney’s record is murky. “To be sure, he has flip-flopped on the issue, earning a Full Flop on PolitiFact’s Flip-O-Meter. His current stance, as he prominently posted in the pages of the National Review in 2011, is to outlaw abortion except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest. He would press to see Roe vs. Wade overturned and allow states to set their own rules on abortion,” Politifact said.

What makes the current abortion controversy particularly difficult for Republicans was when Missouri Republican Todd Akin dismissed an abortion exception for rape. “From what I understand from doctors – that’s really rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Republicans unsuccessfully pressured Akin to get out of the race, fearing they would lose the seat to incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. According to Real Clear Politics average of polls, she now leads by five points in a race that Republicans saw as an easy win.

Indian country is no stranger to the politics of the abortion debate. The reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act failed in 2008 because Sen. David Vitter, R-La., added an amendment to explicitly restrict abortion. Leaders in the then-Democratic controlled House wouldn’t even take up the bill after that amendment passed. Vitter said he did this to block “legislative loopholes” that permitted some abortions in the Indian health care system. “It is time for that to change,” he said, “and it is time to finally close this loophole.”

Abortion rights are already restricted for Native American women under the Hyde Amendment, a law that prevents federal funding for most abortions.

“I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman,” former Rep. Henry Hyde said while debating the amendment. “Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the … Medicaid bill.”

So women who rely on the federal health system are restricted from most abortions.

The Indian health system, both at IHS and in tribal and independent clinics, has less emergency contraception and abortion services than the general population even for rape victims. The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center reported in June that while one-in-three Native women will be raped or be sexually assaulted, yet the IHS system is unprepared to deal with the epidemic. Rape exams were only available at 60 percent of the hospitals, and IHS only employed 73 trained sexual assault examiners for 45 hospitals.

“On a late Saturday night our office called the Sioux San Indian Health Service Emergency room in Rapid City, South Dakota to ask if they would provide Plan B for a rape victim, the response was ‘no we do not, if you want it go buy it,’ that

response was cold, lacking compassion and judgmental. For an advocate to hear a response like that from an Indian Health Service health care provider was very offensive,” the report said.

One reason that the topic is a problem for Republicans is that nearly four-in-ten women see abortion rights as the top reason to vote, according to the Gallup Poll. While most men see the economy or jobs as the most important issue.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is:


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Elections 2012: Abortion Rights Resurfaces as an Election Issue