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McCaskill explains 'prayer' vote, while Akin attracts heat over 'morning after pill'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2012 - Missouri’s two major-party nominees for the U.S. Senate — Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill and Republican challenger Todd Akin — each waded Thursday into touchy social-issue territory.

As McCaskill, D-Mo., shook hands with supporters following her re-election kickoff event Thursday in St. Louis, ally Fred Tompkins asked the senator why she had voted for Amendment 2.

Known as the “prayer amendment,” the measure garnered almost 83 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary. In fact, roughly 48,000 Missourians went to the polls and cast a vote only on the amendment — not on any of the candidates.

Supporters say the amendment protects those who wish to pray in public and private.  Opponents — which include Tompkins — say such protections already are in the state constitution, and question provisions that they say may curb prisoners’ religious freedoms and would allow students to invoke a religious objection to avoid school assignments.

McCaskill told Tompkins, and later the Beacon, that the ballot summary explaining the amendment “seemed pretty straight-forward.” She noted that the summary didn’t refer to any of the disputed provisions.

“I don’t think it was necessary. I think it was reaffirming what is already the law; anybody can pray anywhere,” she said. “So since I didn’t think it really changed the current law, there would certainly be no reason vote against it. I’m all for prayer.”

“I hope everyone is praying for me,” McCaskill added. “I’m going to need a lot of prayers between now and November. I’m not kidding.”

Critics, supporters weign in on Akin's comment

Akin, meanwhile, drew criticism from the political arm of Missouri’s Planned Parenthood affiliates, among others, with his support for outlawing the so-called “morning-after pill.”

The pill, sometimes called “emergency contraception,” and marketed as “Plan B,”  can be taken by a woman within a few days of unprotected sex. Available over-the-counter, the pill prevents a fertilized egg from implanting itself in the womb, but medical experts say it won’t affect an already-implanted embryo.

Some abortion opponents say the pill's use can amount to an early abortion — and Akin is apparently one of them. In an interview with a radio station in Kansas City, the congressman said he’d like to see the pill banned.

“As far as I’m concerned, the morning-after pill is a form of abortion, and I think we shouldn’t have abortion in this country,” Akin said. In response to a follow-up question, Akin said abortion might sometimes be necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life, but that his general stance was to “optimize life. You try to save the mother’s life, you try to save the child…“

Audio of that segment of the interview swiftly began to circulate on the internet, prompting critics to weigh in just as swiftly.

Dr. Ed Weisbart, a St. Louis physician said in a statement, “Emergency contraception, also called the morning-after pill, is a higher dosage of the same hormones found in ordinary birth control pills. It is highly effective in reducing a woman's chance of pregnancy after a contraceptive failure or unprotected sex — including rape,” he said.

Planned Parenthood Advocates, the medical group’s political arm, blasted Akin for “a medically and factually inaccurate statement…”

“Emergency contraception is a safe and effective way to prevent a pregnancy,” the group said. “Emergency contraceptives, approved by the Food and Drug administration, contain hormones that reduce the risk of pregnancy if started within 120 hours of unprotected intercourse.  Representative Todd Akin’s false statement illustrates exactly why politicians should not be meddling in women’s personal medical decisions. “

However, Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life, said she was pleased and “not at all surprised’’ by Akin’s comment.

In Right to Life’s view, the morning-after pill “has the potential of being an abortifacient” because it doesn’t prevent fertilization, and instead prevents implantation of an already fertilized egg.

Akin, said Fichter, “has a solid pro-life history. I am very glad that he has, once again, taken a solid pro-life stance.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.