Todd Akin's gaffe is worse than we think

"Abortions for non-pregnant women" widely held theory.

Todd Akin's most recently unearthed gaffe - the statement, from a 2008 speech, that doctors "give abortions to women who are not actually pregnant" - has caused widespread puzzlement.

Here's the quote:

You find that along with the culture of death go all kinds of other law-breaking: Not following good sanitary procedure, giving abortions to women who are not actually pregnant, cheating on taxes, all these kinds of things.

Seems like a bit of a tricky thing for a doctor to do. Almost impossible, in fact. But Akin isn't alone in having this thought. Amongst anti-choice activists, it's a fairly widespread "fact".

According to a testimonial by Carol Everett, a clinic worker turned strident anti-choice activist, the phenomenon happens regularly:

There are two other things I'd like to talk about. There are women who come in and have abortions but aren't pregnant. You may say, "Oh, that doesn't happen." Maybe you say that. It does happen. First of all, this woman thinks she's pregnant. She's scheduled herself for an abortion. She's come in and her pregnancy test is negative. They have a woman that they have paid their advertising dollars to get in there. They want to do that abortion if there is any way.

So they do everything they can to prove that she's pregnant or has been pregnant. You say "has been pregnant?" Yes, if they can convince her that she has been pregnant, that she's had a spontaneous abortion. She's going to have to go into the hospital to have a D&C to remove the rest of the contents of her uterus. They will convince her to go ahead and have a procedure she doesn't need that day. And it happens. Channel four [Dallas-FortWorth] got it on tape -- a woman that went directly from our office to a doctor's office and the doctor told her that she was and had never been pregnant, and we had tried to do an abortion on her. I don't know what percentage that is. I have no idea...

Her story has been vigorously denied by former colleagues, but the trope is a common one in anti-abortion campaigning. Here's Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America in support of an anti-abortion bill in Ohio:

Would abortionists do abortions on women who are not pregnant? Numerous reports from investigative journalists, state inspectors, and abortion providers have revealed abortionists who routinely committed abortions on Women who were not pregnant.

There's no firm evidence for the practice, and it's an odd thing for anti-abortionists to flag up (as there's no potential child involved). But it does play into more general ideas of women as victims of abortion and doctors as keen advocates. It's not just a gaffe this time - it's a recurring theory.

Todd Akin. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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