If a gaffe is an instance of a politician accidentally expressing his actual beliefs, then Todd Akin has committed a monumental one. When the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri declared that victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”, he was referring to the idea—intuitively appealing to abortion opponents, and therefore somewhat commonamong Republicans—that if a woman does not wish to have intercourse her body will not comply with being raped and thus render her infertile.
This idea, in case you are wondering, is scientifically absurd and demonstrably false. But Republicans have a penchant for inventing ideologically convenient but scientifically unreasonable notions, on everything from climate science to evolution. They also have a habit of making a distinction between forcible and non-forcible rape in cases where it seems irrelevant. More than 200 Republican members of Congress, including Paul Ryan,co-sponsored the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”, which initially limited the exception for federally funded abortions to “an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest”. After an outcry, they backed down and removed the language.
Republicans would prefer that this odd parsing of rape and the issue of abortion stay out of the spotlight. So Mr Akin, a tea-party favourite, is under pressure to drop out of the race. Mitt Romney has called on him to go, and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the National Republican Senatorial Committee are withdrawing their plans to spend millions on his behalf. But his comments are already affecting the presidential race. Today the rather clueless Republican platform committee adopted a statement calling for a ban on abortion with no exception for rape. Democrats are calling it the “the Akin Plank”. Attack ads will surely follow.
Mr Akin remains defiant—yet contrite (see above)—despite the importance of his race for Republican hopes of winning back the Senate. On Mike Huckabee’s radio show Tuesday afternoon, the candidate said, “I misspoke one word in one sentence on one day.” He would love nothing more than to be let off the hook for the extremism of his abortion position and the absurdity of his beliefs by having the focus shifted to his use of the word “legitimate”, which some critics have wrongly taken to mean “acceptable”. Mr Akin is staying in the race, and he hopes to convince enough Missourians that he simply misspoke. But that is not the definition of a gaffe.