Richard Mourdock, running for U.S. Senate in Indiana, said at a debate Tuesday that pregnancies that result from rape are intended by God.
The Republican candidate was explaining his opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest when he made the remark.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, and I realized that life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen," Mourdock said, explaining that he would allow for exceptions to an abortion ban when a mother's life is in danger.
In early May, Mourdock defeated longtime GOP Sen. Richard Lugar in a bitterly contested GOP primary vote, and is facing Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in November's election.
In a statement following the debate, Mourdock wrote that "God creates life, and that was my point."
"God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick," he continued.
Donnelly also responded, writing, "I think rape is a heinous and violent crime in every instance. The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen-ever. What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape."
Mourdock has enjoyed support from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who traveled to Indiana in August to campaign for the tea party-backed candidate alongside former Vice President Dan Quayle and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Romney has also appeared in a television ad for Mourdock.
Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, said in response to Mourdock's rape comments that "Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views."
Former President Bill Clinton stumped in Indiana last week for Donnelly. A Howey/DePauw University poll taken Sept. 19-23 showed Donnelly at 40 percent and Mourdock at 38 percent among likely Indiana voters.
The Republican Senate candidate's remarks on rape and abortion are the latest flash point on the highly sensitive issue. In August, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri - also running for Senate - ignited a firestorm when he said "legitimate rape" rarely resulted in pregnancy.
Akin, who faced backlash from Democrats as well as from most of his own party, defiantly remained in the race, despite calls from GOP leaders, including Romney, to step aside.
A senior GOP strategist, however, said Mourdock may not face as much pushback from Republican leaders as Akin experienced, given the limited time remaining before Election Day and the importance for the GOP to win the Indiana seat.
"Mourdock said what millions of people believe -- that babies are a gift from God," the strategist said. "Akin said something crazy about women's bodies rejecting pregnancy from rape, which no one believes."
The strategist argued that because "Indiana is a very pro-life state," Mourdock's comments "won't be fatal" for his Senate campaign.
In fact, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, released a statement Wednesday morning supporting Mourdock.
"Richard and I, along with millions of Americans -- including even Joe Donnelly -- believe that life is a gift from God. To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous," Cornyn said in the statement.
Rep. Joe Walsh, another tea party-backed Republican running for re-election in Illinois, questioned last week the necessity of allowing abortions if a mother's life is at risk, saying such an exemption to an abortion ban was simply a tool by pro-choice activists.
Speaking after a debate with his opponent, Walsh seemed to suggest medical advances made dangerous pregnancies rare.
"This is an issue that opponents of life throw out there to make us look unreasonable," Walsh said. "There's no such exception as life of the mother, and as far as health of the mother, same thing, with advances in science and technology. Health of the mother has been, has become a tool for abortions any time under any reason."
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly disputed Walsh's position.
"Contrary to the inaccurate statements made yesterday by Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health," reads a response posted on the ACOG's website on Oct. 19, 2012. "These inaccurate comments are yet another reason why The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' (The College) message to politicians is unequivocal: Get out of our exam rooms."