In today's Republican Party a candidate's position on abortion plays a major role in whether or not he or she will win the party's nomination.

In this presidential election the main focus of both campaigns was supposed to be the economy.

"I find it astounding that we have legislators from both sides who don't stop and think about why [women get an abortion] .... We all need to talk to women and to families where abortion decisions do get made .... It's a personal matter … and the government should not be interfering in this personal decision."

- Judy Norsigian, the executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves

But, a Republican congressman's controversial comments have once again brought women's reproductive rights to the forefront.

Last week Todd Akin, a Republican running for the senate in Missouri, said: "If it is a legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume maybe that didn't work or something .... I think that there should be some punishment but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child."

Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, distanced themselves from the comments by Akin, releasing a statement saying that their administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.

The campaign of incumbent Barack Obama was quick to seize on Akin's comments in order to present the Romney-Ryan ticket as anti-women - not least because Ryan himself co-sponsored legislation with Akin further limiting federal funding for abortions to victims of "forcible rape".

When asked last week about abortion in cases of rape, Ryan said: "Mitt Romney's going to be the president. The president sets the policy. His policy is exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. I'm comfortable with it because it's a good step in the right direction. I'll leave it at that."

"The evangelical side of the anti-abortion movement comes from a biblical position of taking the Old and New Testament literally, and one of the threads that run through the Bible, unfortunately, is a thread of misogyny, [that] women are second-class citizens, and this is bled in to the evangelical, religious, pro-life movement."

- Frank Schaeffer, a former evangelical and author

But in the past Ryan has co-sponsored a strict anti-abortion bill with Akin in the US Congress - in which the only rape victims exempt from abortion restrictions would be those subject to "forcible rape". A later version of the bill removed that term.

Ryan and Akin also co-sponsored a Personhood Bill, which declares that a fertilised egg has the same legal rights as a human being. Many birth control pills prevent a fertilised egg from implanting in a woman's uterus, so the bill implies that using many forms of oral contraception would be a crime.

Meanwhile the issue of reproductive rights goes beyond the 2012 US presidential campaign. Last year, 24 US states passed provisions making it more difficult for women to obtain an abortion.

In this episode of Inside Story: US 2012 we examine the issue of abortion rights and how Republicans have defined women's rights.

Joining the discussion with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Frank Schaeffer, the author of Sex, Mom, and God, and Judy Norsigian, the executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, a non-profit women's health education, advocacy and consulting organisation. A member of Republicans for Choice, an organisation advocating for abortion rights, could not make it for the panel discussion.


According to the Guttmacher Institute, a public policy institute that tracks issues related to reproductive rights, including information on unwanted pregnancies and abortions in the US:

  • About half of all pregnancies in the US - 3.2 million - are unintended
  • An estimated 22 per cent of all pregnancies, excluding miscarriages, end in abortion
  • About 54 per cent of women who had abortions did use a contraceptive method
  • The main reason given for an abortion is economic - 75 per cent of women say they want to terminate a pregnancy because they cannot afford another child, while half said they were having problems with their partner

Source: Al Jazeera