No phrase causes conservative and liberal ladies to talk past each other more than the "war on women." Democrats can't comprehend how women align themselves with a party that seeks to legislate their bodies, and Republicans insist that being anti-abortion is the most woman-friendly position out there. The conversation has been going on for decades—centuries, even—and we've barely made a dent in the search for common ground.
But there are strongly held beliefs, and then there's willful ignorance. In the past year, a handful of Republican men have famously run off at the mouth about pregnancy, birth control, and abortion. The recent wave throws rape in the mix: Rep. Todd Akin, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Missouri, claimed that a "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy, displaying such a spectacularly warped view of reality that even fellow Republicans urged him to drop out of the race. Senate nominee Tom Smith said getting pregnant from a rape was "similar" to having a baby out of wedlock. And Rep. Steve King has "never heard of" statutory rape causing pregnancy.
To the thousands of progressive journalists descending on Tampa for the RNC, these recent incidents are front–and-center in their minds, even as most politicians taking the stage are staying mum about reproductive issues. So what about the Republican female delegates from across the country? How has this past year of controversies—from the Susan G. Komen debacle to aspirin-as-birth-control to transvaginal ultrasounds to uteruses that "can shut that whole thing down"—colored their opinions about their party?
Last night in Tampa, there seemed to be a cognitive dissonance between how Republican women evaluated their party's policies and how they judged their members' offhand comments.
"One person does not a party make," said 34-year-old African American delegate Adonica Duggan of Louisiana, who was nearly brought to tears by Mia Love's brief appearance last night. "If everyone was punished by what one member of the group said, where would we be?"
As a mother of four, she knows Rep. Akin's comments are false. Every single woman I talked to on the forum floor knew they were false. But Duggan is behind his underlying message. "If you believe that abortion is murder, then there are no compromises," she said, referring to abortion laws that make exceptions for rape and incest.
She also believes Planned Parenthood should be fully defunded (as far as she knows, none of her family or friends have ever set foot in one of their clinics). She thinks if you work for a Catholic organization, you shouldn't expect birth control to be covered by insurance. Regardless of a few palm-to-forehead comments, Duggan is fully in step with the GOP's ideology.
For others, the Akin, Smith, and King remarks were just embarrassing examples of boys being boys.
"What he said was sloppy, and a lot of people don't know how a woman's body works. Especially men," said 22-year-old Hawaii delegate Gia, who declined to give her last name. She laughed, rolled her eyes, and waved her hand behind her head. "He probably just heard something and believed it." As far as the GOP being an anti-woman party, "nothing could be further from the truth. [Akin] is pro-life, and he seems like a very caring person. A pro-life position is more respectful to women."
"They were gaffes just like Biden or Obama," said Alabama delegate Pat Moore, in response to the past weeks' trio of rape comments. "Everyone's entitled to a gaffe once in a while." She added, "there was a study at some point that explained you couldn't get pregnant [during a rape]." Not that Moore, herself, believes that.
Some female delegates weren't so quick to excuse these incidents—and reminded me that not every Republican takes such a hard line on reproductive issues.
"We really have a broad spectrum here," said Louisiana delegate Lorrie Meltzer, an emergency medicine physician and a self-described moderate. "[The incident with Akin] was very unfortunate. He needs a media coach and a biology teacher. Like, freshman biology."
Meltzer wouldn't comment on issues like abortion or Planned Parenthood, explaining she wants people to focus on "more important issues, like the economy." But don't reproductive rights affect a woman's financial future? "Sure. We have birth control for that. And no Republican anywhere, no Republican in this room, wants to deny people birth control."
If only I could take her word for it.