| US President Barack Obama answers questions during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC. Obama on Monday slammed a Republican lawmaker who had questioned whether a "legitimate rape" can lead to pregnancy, and defended his own campaign's stance on abortion law. - WASHINGTON (AFP)
White House rivals President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney condemned Monday a Republican lawmaker's shock claim that women can prevent pregnancy during rape, sparking an abortion debate likely to impact the election campaign.
But while Romney scrambled to distance his campaign from his party ally's statement, Obama seized on the gaffe to embarrass his opponent and underline the gap between their positions.
Congressman Todd Akin, his party's nominee for the Senate race in Missouri, triggered outrage Sunday when he said a woman's body can block an unwanted pregnancy during what he termed a "legitimate rape."
Akin's claim, which is unsupported by science, has been used in the past by some Christian conservatives to justify their opposition to abortion, even those in cases of rape.
But even as Akin defiantly refused to bow out Monday, the walls were rapidly closing in on the congressman, with the Republican Party reportedly shutting off funding for him and flagbearer Romney quick to condemn the remarks.
Several other high-ranking party figures, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, fearful of seeing the Republican plan to woo women and independent voters away from Democrats derailed, also waded in.
Obama acknowledged Romney had distanced himself, but nevertheless found a way to twist the knife during an appearance at the White House briefing room, telling reporters: "First of all, the views expressed were offensive.
"Rape is rape, and the idea we should be parsing... what types of rape we are talking about doesn't make sense to the American people," he said, quickly turning to the broader issue of abortion rights.
"What I think that these comments do underscore is why we should not have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women," Obama said.
Akin's remark angered Romney.
"Congressman Akin's comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong," Romney told the conservative National Review Online. "Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive."
In his comments, Akin had appeared to suggest that some women falsely allege rape in order to justify abortion. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," he said.
Romney dismissed this claim and said: "I have an entirely different view. What he said is entirely without merit and he should correct it."
Amid a growing backlash, Akin apologized, saying on the Mike Huckabee Show, a syndicated radio program, that he used "absolutely the wrong word" and that his comments were "a very, very serious error."
But he also suggested he was not going to stand down in his race against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.
"I'm not a quitter. My belief is we're going to take this thing forward, and by the grace of God, to win this race," Akin said.
While he said no one from the Romney campaign had called him to demand he stand down, several Republicans publicly urged Akin to pull out, including Senator Scott Brown, from Massachusetts where Romney was once governor.
"Not only should he apologize, but I believe Representative Akin's statement was so far out of bounds that he should resign the nomination for US Senate."
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus gave voice to what many Republicans were undoubtedly thinking.
"If it was me I would do the right thing and step aside," Priebus told Missouri's KMOX radio.
Akin's remarks also have been seized upon by Democrats, including McCaskill, who was fundraising on Akin's remarks.
"For most Missourians I hope this is one of those gut check moments when they realize this is not somebody we want speaking for us and for our values on the floor of the United States Senate," she told MSNBC news.
Despite his condemnation of Akin's outburst, and his pro-choice position during his time as Massachusetts governor, Romney is campaigning on an anti-abortion ticket.
He wants the US Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the president, to overturn "Roe V. Wade", the landmark 1973 ruling that upholds the legality of abortion.
Romney's vice-presidential running mate, congressman Paul Ryan, partnered with Akin in 2009 to co-sponsor a "personhood bill" which declared a fertilized egg is entitled to the same legal rights as a person, and would have essentially outlawed abortion even in the case of rape or incest.
"I'm as pro-life as a person gets," Ryan told the conservative Weekly Standard magazine in 2010.