Divisive abortion debate has potential to derail Romney's run


The party is divided and distracted by the issue, writes LARA MARLOWEat the Republican convention in Tampa

“MY BIRTH mother was abducted at gunpoint by a serial rapist,” begins Rebecca Kiessling’s story.

Mitt Romney would like to forget about the issue of exceptions to a proposed ban on abortion but Kiessling, a Republican attorney, anti-abortion activist and spokeswoman for Personhood USA, will not let the issue die.

The party is divided, with Romney advocating exceptions in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life. Its platform specifies that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed” and makes no allowance for exceptions.

The issue dominated the run-up to the convention, after Todd Akin, a Republican senatorial candidate, claimed a woman’s body would “shut down” the possibility of pregnancy if she were the victim of a “legitimate rape”.

“Social conservatives were very upset that Romney came out with a press release tainting Ryan’s good name,” says Kiessling, referring to the campaign’s statement that it disagreed with Akin.

She appeared prominently on television during the Akin controversy, and has kept a high profile at the convention, appearing in a film titled The Gift of Life.

Kiessling is an attractive, blue-eyed blonde who wears a stars-and-stripes teapot bracelet and matching ear-rings to signify her support for the Tea Party. “My local Tea Party is very pro-life, and I like the idea they go against the party machine,” she explains.

She also participated in the Republicans’ “Life Event”, with former candidates Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, all of whom signed the “Personhood Pledge”, which stipulates an absolute ban on abortion.

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul also signed the no-exceptions pledge. Mitt Romney did not. Santorum reiterated his opposition to abortion in his speech to the convention on Tuesday night.

When Kiessling’s birth mother learned she was pregnant she approached two back alley abortionists in Michigan but decided against the procedure because it was illegal.

Kiessling was born in July 1969, three years before the Roe v Wade decision legalised abortion in the US. “I owe my life to the law,” she says. “It’s not just that I would not have been born; I would have been killed. I was not just a glob of tissue in my mother’s womb; I was me. I was saved from a burning building. I speak publicly about it 75 times a year; this is my life mission.”

Kiessling was adopted by a bipolar woman and her abusive husband, who broke her nose. At the age of 19, she was reunited with her birth mother, who later legally adopted her own biological daughter. “I have a very happy ending,” says Kiessling. She is the mother of five children, two of them adopted.

But isn’t it cruel to force a woman to carry the child of a man who violated her? In the voluminous discussion of the rape exception, the well-being of the victim is seldom considered. “I am not ‘the rapist’s baby’. He didn’t even know I existed,” Kiessling snaps back. “Our mission is to seek to protect these women.”

Kiessling’s website estimates that there are 32,000 rape-related pregnancies in the US each year, though she believes the figure is higher. She says up to one-quarter of those pregnancies are aborted, and she wants to see that stopped.

Todd Akin’s allusion to “legitimate rape” is “totally irrelevant for someone who is 100 per cent pro-life,” says Kiessling.

“It’s when you carve rape exceptions into the law that you have to have a standard for determining the veracity of the woman’s story. As long as we have rape exceptions, we will always have abortion on demand in this country.”

It was Kiessling who converted the Texas governor Rick Perry to the no-exceptions policy.

But when she met Romney five years ago “he was not tender-hearted like governor Perry.”

She claims Romney told her that his wife was almost aborted, but she has never heard him repeat that story, before or since. “He said, ‘I am pro-life. How could I ever have been pro-choice?’ ”

Kiessling says Republicans like Romney who oppose abortion but approve exceptions “are malleable; I just want to educate them”.

Other Republicans are less understanding. The American Right to Life Action group this week launched a website called RepublicansAgainstRomney.com, which documents Romney’s past positions on abortion, gay rights and universal healthcare, and concludes that “Obama is the lesser of two evils”.

Ann Stone, who heads Republicans for Choice, deplores the fact that Todd Akin’s remark and the ensuing controversy over rape exceptions “doesn’t help the campaign connect with women voters”.

She tells a different story involving Mitt Romney; that he had a cousin who died at the age of 21 after a back alley abortion.

Stone says surveys show that 71 per cent of Republicans believe women should have the right to decide what happens to their own body. She interprets that to mean the party is secretly pro-choice.