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, who campaigns as an anti-abortion candidate, 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."
At Tuesday's debate, Donnelly said, "The only exceptions I believe in are for rape and incest and life of the mother."
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."
The GOP candidate for governor in Indiana, Rep. Mike Pence, said in a Wednesday statement, "I strongly disagree with the statement made by Richard Mourdock during last night's Senate debate. I urge him to apologize."
Former President Bill Clinton stumped in Indiana last week for Donnelly. A Howey/DePauw University poll taken September 19-23 showed Donnelly at 40% and Mourdock at 38% 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, 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.
But that hasn't stopped Democrats from pounding away at the comment.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that Obama "felt those comments were outrageous and demeaning to women."
"This is a reminder that a Republican Congress working with a Republican president Mitt Romney would (feel) that women should not be able to make choices about their own health care," she said, according to notes taken by a pool reporter.
"This is an issue where Mitt Romney is starring in an ad," she continued, "and it is perplexing that he wouldn't demand to have that ad taken down."
"I think it is clear that Mitt Romney, that many Republicans who are running for office including him, including Mr. Mourdock have very extreme positions on issue that women care deeply about in this country," she continued. "That if they have the opportunity to be partners, in the White House and the Senate, then that is something that women should have, and I think will have, concern about as they are going to the voting booth."
Dawn Laguens of the group Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion and other health care services, said in a statement, "Mitt Romney must immediately rescind his endorsement of (Mourdock) and demand that (Mourdock) take down the campaign ads featuring him."