Not surprisingly, Mr. Mourdock's comments are being compared to comments Senate Candidate Robet Akin of MO, who opined that when a woman is "forcibly raped" her body can "shut down" the process of conception. But Mr. Mourdock's comments are very different, and the difference between the two comments illustrates a profound division within the anti-abortion movement, and why Mr. Mourdock is much less likely to face serious voter backlash from his base than Mr. Akin. It also highlights why so many women in the country do not think they have a particular interest in the issue.
There are two strains within the anti-abortion movement. Well, more accurately, there are two ways in which members of the anti-abortion movement respond to "my body my choice." Both start with the basic principle that life begins at conception. The divergence is the justification for overriding what we would normally see as a matter of personal autonomy. One camp argues that the right of the unborn child supersedes what would usually be the right of the mother to make a decision about her own body. The other camp views an unwanted pregnancy primarily as a moral failing on the part of the mother for having sex for reasons other than procreation. These views frequently run together, but a difference emerges when a mother conceives from a clearly involuntary act such as rape or incest, or when an exigent circumstance arises, such as as the pregnancy threatening the health of the mother.
The theologically sound answer, as expressed from the "fetus is innocent bystander" camp, was given by Mr. Mourdock. This falls into the "why do bad things happen to good people" category. Through no moral failing of your own, a tragedy has occurred, but that cannot justify ending an innocent life (the child's). Under this theory, it is no more justified to end a pregnancy resulting from rape than it would be to allow the rape victim to summarily execute a random bystander because we can't find the rapist. [I am aware of the flaws in the analogy if you don't accept the basic premise.] Yes, this imposes terrible emotional and physical costs on the innocent mother. But in this regard, the terrible burden of suffering a rape and then suffering an unwanted pregnancy as a result is not materially different than other forms of suffering and tragedy visited upon those who have not sinned.
Most Americans, however, do not like this hard theology. Most Americans generally want to believe that when something bad happens to someone else, it is somehow their fault. (When something bad happens to me, however, it is totally not my fault.) The most extreme form of this is Mr. Akin and others like him, who cling to ridiculous nonsense rather than confront the hard theological question that a core principle (life begin at conception) creates an unavoidable conflict with another principle (that a woman might, through no moral failing, have an unwanted pregnancy). If pregnancy is not a result of a rape, but is a sign that what looks like rape was somehow not "really" a rape, it solves the moral dilema by making the rape "really" the mother's fault somehow.
But (relatively) few Americans are so extreme as Mr. Akin that they will conjure all manner of fantasies to avoid the reality that there are circumstances -- at least in theory -- under which a women can conceive a child against her will and might therefore have an unwanted pregnancy through no "moral failing." This is why so many Americans support exceptions for rape and incest. As a matter of theology, however, this is hard to justify. If the fetus is an innocent and independent person, than how can the exception be justified? But refusing to create the exception "punishes" the "innocent" mother (as opposed to the woman who suffered a birth control failure, who 'took her chances' and 'deserves to live with the consequences.')
Which leads me to why Mourdock's comments are wholly different from those of Mr. Akin, and why those who believe that abortion is a right should respond somewhat differently. Mr. Akin is a moral coward. Mr. Mourdock is honest and consistent and concisely states the ideology at the heart of the anti-abortion movement. When you chose a policy and/or a moral framework, you choose the consequences of that framework. If the basis for prohibiting abortions is because the fetus is innocent and concern for this innocent life overrides the right of the mother, then there is no moral basis for cases of rape and incest.
Put more strongly, if you want to make abortion illegal but have a rape or incest exception, this is really about punishing "immoral" women -- so please do not pretend it is about protecting innocent life. Also, you ought to recognize that if you elect people who are sincere about this, then they will not include an exemption for rape or incest. It is time for people to stop fooling themselves as to the fundamental nature of this debate. If you believe that the right of the unborn fetus trumps that of the mother, then stand by your convictions and admit that this will impose the suffering on an unwanted pregnancy on some number of women who are pregnant against their will. If you do not have the moral courage to tell a 13 year old girl who was raped by her uncle that she is going to have to carry that baby to term, then you have no business pretending this about anything but punishing "immoral" women.