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Abortion, gay marriage put party platforms in spotlight

Missouri Republican Todd Akin during a debate at Washington University in St. Louis on July 6.Sid Hastings/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Associated Press

Every four years, Democratic and Republican platform committees labor over manifestos that describe what it means to belong to their respective parties. And almost no one reads them.

But these typically obscure documents have been elevated to national prominence this year by a formerly obscure Missouri congressman named Todd Akin and a widening gap in political philosophies between the two tickets.

Akin’s remarks about rape and abortion made the GOP’s preliminary adoption Tuesday of a no-exceptions ban on abortion a top story, though the party has included some of the same language — “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed” — on every platform since 1984.

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Even if Akin had not ignited a firestorm Sunday, when in defense of restricting rape victims’ access to abortion he said victims of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” the parties’ platforms probably would have generated uncommon interest.

Two weeks ago, the Democratic platform committee passed language calling for legal same-sex marriage — an endorsement that, if approved at the Democratic National Convention next month, would be a first for a major US party.

And the Republican platform committee’s unwillingness on Monday to explicitly protect the mortgage-interest tax deduction was blasted by real estate groups and seized on by Democrats as evidence that a Republican administration would raise taxes on the middle class. On Tuesday, the committee reversed course.

A party’s official platform is nonbinding. It is meant to reflect a party’s overriding sentiment on key issues and is crafted with its presidential nominee in mind, but candidates are not obligated to stand firmly on every plank.

Abortion and gay marriage serve as prime examples: Democrats’ backing of same-sex marriage echoed President Obama’s declaration of support in May, but Republicans’ call for a human life amendment banning abortion in all cases is more stringent than Mitt Romney’s current position of opposing abortion with exceptions for women impregnated by rape or incest, and for expectant mothers whose lives are endangered.

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David E. Lewis, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said that because they do not determine candidates’ policies, platform deliberations are “often a side show to other convention activities,”

When a Democratic subcommittee first approved support for same-sex marriage last month, R. Clarke Cooper, president of Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP gay rights group, minimized the significance of the endorsement.

“I don’t put a lot of stock in platform language,” Cooper said at the time.

Nevertheless, Cooper was in Tampa this week, lobbying the platform committee to strike “any antigay language,” acknowledging that the committee’s vote carries “some symbolic value.”

Cooper got some of his wish. The platform committee “embrace[d] the principle that all Americans have the right to be treated with dignity and respect” in its draft and did not call for reinstating the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which Obama ended last year.

In 2008, the Republican platform asserted the “incompatibility of homosexuality with military service.” But language approved Tuesday also defined marriage as the union of “one man and one woman” and reaffirmed the GOP’s support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

Obama instructed the Justice Department last year to stop defending the marriage act in court, declaring his belief that the law is unconstitutional.

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The Republican National Committee denied the Globe’s request to view its preliminary document, and the Democratic National Committee did not respond to the same request.

But some planks have become public, including Republicans’ reversal on the mortgage-interest deduction.

Romney has outlined a tax plan that would cut every American’s federal income tax rate by a fifth but has also pledged to maintain current revenue levels. The former Massachusetts governor aims to make up for the money lost to lower rates by broadening the tax base and closing unspecified loopholes, but analysts predict those measures will not be enough.

A study published this month by the independent Tax Policy Center concluded that to hit his revenue mark, Romney would have to eliminate some tax benefits enjoyed by the middle class, possibly including the mortgage-interest deduction.

The GOP platform committee’s initial rejection of a mortgage-interest deduction safeguard only fueled speculation that Romney might eliminate the benefit, though he said in a recent interview with Fortune that he “will not do that for middle-income taxpayers.” The committee later added to its call for tax reform a statement that “we must preserve the mortgage interest deduction.”

But the most closely watched platform debate has centered on abortion. Though the language of the no-exceptions abortion ban approved Tuesday by the Republican platform committee is largely recycled, it is more stringent than what the GOP adopted in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade.

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There is no abortion provision for victims of rape and incest or for women whose health is threatened by pregnancy. There is also no acknowledgment that some members of the party — including its presumptive presidential nominee — favor such exceptions and that others, like Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, support abortion rights.

Twenty-six years ago, the Republican platform said “the question of abortion is one of the most difficult and controversial of our time.”

“There are those in our party who favor complete support for the Supreme Court decision which permits abortion on demand,” the 1976 platform read. “There are others who share sincere convictions that the Supreme Court’s decision must be changed by a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions.’’

Ultimately, the GOP voted in 1976 to support “the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.” But the party also said it favored “a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion.”

Brown rebuked Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus Tuesday.

“I believe this is a mistake because it fails to recognize the views of pro-choice Republicans like myself,” Brown wrote. “Even while I am pro-choice, I respect those who have a different opinion on this very difficult and sensitive issue. Our party platform should make the same concession to those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose.”


Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com.