U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri ignited a firestorm of criticism Sunday when he said in a television interview that rape victims have a biological ability to ward off pregnancy.
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," the Republican said in the interview broadcast on KTVI-TV in St. Louis.
Later Sunday, Akin's campaign said the congressman had erred.
"In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it's clear that I misspoke in this interview, and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped or abused every year," Akin said in a prepared statement.
Akin's campaign declined to specify exactly what the congressman misspoke about, saying the statement would be the only response.
Akin, a six-term U.S. representative from the St. Louis area who faces Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in November, was explaining why he opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest. In the interview, Akin also said pregnancies resulting from rape are "really rare."
McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor, quickly issued a statement saying she had worked with hundreds of rape victims over the years.
"It is beyond comprehension that someone can be so ignorant about the emotional and physical trauma brought on by rape," McCaskill said. "The ideas that Todd Akin has expressed about the serious crime of rape and the impact on its victims are offensive."
Late Sunday, a spokeswoman for the Republican presidential ticket issued a statement to CNN, saying Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan disputed Akin's rape remark.
"Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin's statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape," Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg wrote.
The incident marked the second time in four days that Akin made comments that drew wide attention. On Thursday at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, he said he didn't think the federal government should fund school lunches.
"This is another building block in the argument that McCaskill has been making over the last couple of weeks, which is that Akin is out of touch and even too conservative for Missouri," said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist.
Akin found support Sunday from Missouri Right to Life.
"Missouri Right to Life supports Congressman Akin's defense of the life of an innocent unborn child conceived by rape," Pam Fichter, the organization's president, said in a prepared statement. "Victims of sexual assault deserve a compassionate response and should not be further victimized by abortion.
"Congressman Akin's consistent defense of innocent unborn human life clearly contrasts with the anti-life positions of Sen. Claire McCaskill, who supports abortion on demand for the full nine months of pregnancy, opposed the ban on partial-birth abortion and supported the Obama health care law, which will subsidize and greatly expand abortions in this country."
But Akin's rape comments drew a round of denunciations from women's rights and anti-sexual-violence groups across Missouri.
"It just demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of that situation that women are put in," said Jean Peters Baker, the Democratic Jackson County prosecutor and board member of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault. "It just disappoints me that somebody who wants to represent my constituency and my community would have so little understanding of what these women go through."
Asked whether there's a factual basis to Akin's statements about pregnancy after rape, Peters Baker said, "No, no, no. We have no magical powers."
Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said Akin's remarks "startled" her.
"I've been very gratified since the story broke by the response of Missourians who very clearly understand that rape is rape and that we actually do have a thoughtful consensus in the way in which we respond to the survivors of rape," Coble said.
Jamie Tomek, president of the Missouri National Organization for Women, called Akin's remarks outrageous.
"I think that he doesn't care," Tomek said. "He knows exactly what he's doing. He's going to use everything he can to appeal to certain members of society that will vote for him."
In his statement Sunday, Akin called rapists "the lowest of the low in our society" and said victims "will have no stronger advocate in the Senate to help ensure they have the justice they deserve.
"I recognize that abortion, and particularly in the case of rape, is a very emotionally charged issue. But I believe deeply in the protection of all life and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action.
"I also recognize that there are those who, like my opponent, support abortion and I understand I may not have their support in this election," Akin said.
The McCaskill camp pointed out that Akin backed a Republican bill last year that sought to permanently cut off federal funding for abortions. The measure altered the definition of rape to include coverage only in cases in which the rape was considered "forcible."
For years, Congress prevented federally funded health care programs from covering abortion, but allowed exceptions in cases of rape and incest and when the life of the woman is threatened.
But in the 2011 bill, the adjective "forcible" was attached to rape, which angered some women's groups.
The House later removed the word "forcible" from the bill.
Squire, the political scientist, said Akin's "amazingly inept" comment is destined to get a lot of national attention.