Outside the Renaissance Grand hotel in downtown St Louis, a grey-haired man in a blazer argues with a group of women in pink T-shirts, one of whom is in a motorised wheelchair. The man is one of hundreds of pro-life Missouri pastors who, moments earlier, had re-ignited Todd Akin‘s campaign for the US Senate with ringing endorsements and shouts of “amen.”
The women in T-shirts are part of a noisy and increasingly angry protest against the Republican congressman. They accuse Akin of “going backwards” on everything from equal pay for women and free school lunches for children, to banning emergency contraception, abortion and funding for Planned Parenthood.
The furore caused by Akin’s now infamous and much-criticised “legitimate rape” comments – suggesting that victims of rape can “shut down’ potential pregnancies – shows little sign of abating. Despite signs of a U-turn from the Republican party who abandoned him over the comments, Akin, who believes abortion should be banned even in cases of rape, has become associated with bad science and an anti-woman agenda.
Akin did nothing to overcome that perception on Thursday, when he said that his Democratic opponent Claire McCaskill had not acted “ladylike” during a recent debate. Patty Murray, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, described the remark as “demeaning to women and offensive to all”.
Yet, against this backdrop of anger, Akin has attracted a small but determined band of female supporters who believe they can stem the tide of resentment against him. Missouri Women Standing with Todd Akin (MWSTA) began with eight women in a suburban living room a month ago, and launched last Tuesday with a rally in Chesterfield in Akin’s St Louis congressional district, attended by 300 people.
At events this week, Akin’s aides handed out leaflets with testimonials and photographs of nine women, including his daughter, Hannah, who is heavily involved in the campaign. Almost all gave just their first names. Two videos on the Akin site, one of which was later removed, have also appeared, as has a photograph of a score of women, dressed in white, some holding babies.
The Guardian spoke to some of the women, all volunteers, to find out why they decided to come out in support of a conservative whom the mainstream Republican party and many women in the US consider a pariah.
Among the 25 core members of MWSTA, are stay-at-home moms, single mothers, students, churchgoers and friends of Akin’s family, particularly his son, Perry. One is a doctor in paediatrics, one a part-time interior designer. Another is a registered nurse. They are not all conservative Republicans.
What they share the most with Akin is strong belief in God, and what unites them is their unshakable pro-life views.
His supporters refer to Akin’s “mistake”, his apology and their frustration with the Republican party “throwing him under the bus”. But a deeper look reveals some also share Akin’s disregard for science and a staunch pro-life view at odds with the vast majority of Americans, who support legal abortion in the case of rape or incest.
One of Akin’s supporters, Kelly Burrell, describes herself on the video as a “single mother and saved alcoholic”.
When we meet in downtown St Louis, Burrell reveals she is also a rape victim twice over. An independent, who has never been involved in politics and who votes “100% on issue” she is still torn over who to vote for in the general election. She is an unlikely ally of a conservative Republican.
“I’m a follower of Christ, so what I read in my bible and my experience is what counts,” said Burrell, a mother of two, Abby, 11 and Katy, 8, from Wildwood, Missouri.
A former drug addict and alcoholic, Burrell, pictured, has been sober for three years and is now a student at the liberal arts Missouri Baptist University. She also works in the prison ministry, and met Akin thorough his son.
She was “heartbroken and completely frustrated” when she heard about Akin’s remarks back in August.
“What Todd meant and what he said I can’t know – but it is true that there have been instances of women claiming rape when they were not raped,” she said. “I don’t excuse his comment, but I also forgive him misspeaking. But he was demonised. Knowing him and knowing his two daughters, he absolutely has a heart for women. I know him and his family. You get a glimpse into someone’s soul. He is a man of principle, a man of faith.”
Asked what she thought about the science behind Akin’s comments over a rape victim shutting down a potential pregnancy, Burrell said: “I’m not a scientist, but there are a lot of contradictions. There was a time in the world when scientist thought the world was flat. I don’t buy into science.”
As one of five women who appear in a video on Akin’s website, Burrell’s testimony stands out as the most extraordinary. She met Akin at a wedding reception and was surprised, she said, when he was friendly towards her, having previously had “bad experiences” with conservative Republicans.
Her voice cracks and she appears close to tears as she reveals that she had an abortion, but “grieves every year” for what might have been.
Asked about whether, having had the choice herself, she would vote to remove that choice for others, she said she wished the choice had not been there at the time.
Burrell said her decision also affects her two daughters, who have a “void” in their lives where a brother or sister could have been.
“I have spent the past few years regretting that the choice was in existence,” she said. Burrell insists Akin wants the best for women, and said she is taken aback at the negative comments the Akin website receives.
Burrell said the idea for the campaign came after a meeting of eight women, including Heather Kesselring, now the assistant director of MWSTA and Debbie Cochran, the director, when they met and prayed together after Akin was ostracised by the mainstream Republican party.
It was her idea, Burrell said, to have all the women in the photograph dress in white, because white “shows who you are”. She said that one of the videos, which was pilloried for having an unidentified women in silhouette, was a trial run and never intended to be used as part of the campaign.
Kesselring, 32, a part-time interior designer from Maryland Heights and mother of three boys aged two, four and nine, has known the Akin family for 22 years.
She said: “We know he supports women’s issues and we want to stand with him. I believe he protects life and views men and women equally. I know the decisions he makes and the votes that he makes.”
Asked if she believes women who are raped should have access to abortion, Kesserling said: “Often the focus has been in terms of the life of the victim. But if there is an abortion, the baby is a victim too.”
She said she wasn’t sure about whether Akin has voted against school lunches for children, affordable healthcare or equal rights for women but that if he had, it would have been because it interfered with other beliefs. Akin voted against federally funded school breakfasts and lunches, the Affordable Healthcare act and the final passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women who are victims of wage discrimination to seek redress.
Another grassroots Akin supporter, Linda Becker, now a spokeswoman for MWSTA, said she got to know Akin better after organising a country-themed fundraiser for him in St Old Monroe in Lincoln County. Akin, who enjoys gospel music, brought his guitar and played.
Becker, one of the women in the main photograph, said she believes he should be forgiven for his comments. A conservative Republican and pro-lifer, she is voting for him because “he votes the way I would. I believe in smaller government, and smaller spending. He is a fiscal conservative and doesn’t believe the government has a right to interfere in our healthcare.”
Asked how she reconciles these beliefs with Akin’s belief that the government should have a say in what women choose to do with their bodies, she said: “There is a real war on women today because of pornography and abuse. I don’t think anyone is trying to tell women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies.”