If you’re going to slander the estimated 32,000 women a year who become pregnant after being raped, it’s probably not wise to do it on a Sunday, when it will lead the next week’s news coverage. Republican nominee for Missouri Senate Todd Akin chose not to follow this bit of wisdom, instead declaring in a television interview yesterday that women can’t get pregnant from rape.
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
For people who don’t follow the anti-choice movement closely, this statement might be a stunner for the simple reason that it makes no biological sense; a rapist’s sperm swims as well as a non-rapist’s. But for those of us who do, it’s no surprise. The myth that “real” rapes don’t result in pregnancy is widespread among anti-choicers—and not just the fringe (Akin, for instance, used to be on the board of Missouri Right to Life). You can see a variation of this myth at the anti-choice website Abortion Facts:
To get pregnant and stay pregnant, a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain which is easily influenced by emotions. There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.
Akin’s comment should serve as a reminder that despite its sentimentality surrounding the fetus, the anti-choice movement is motivated by misogyny and ignorance about human sexuality. In this case, what underlies the rape-doesn’t-get-you-pregnant myth is the notion that sex is shameful and that slutty women will do anything—even send an innocent man to jail to kill a baby—in order to avoid facing the consequences of their actions.
You can see this logic play out broadly in discussions about rape as well as abortion. The most common defense in rape cases is that the victim consented to sex and only “cried rape” in order to seem less promiscuous. The claim, of course, is nonsensical. Why would a woman trying to put a one-night stand behind her invite grilling by detectives and defense attorneys? Why would someone so concerned about maintaining the illusion of purity subject her sex life to examination by a crowd of jurors? That the myth persists nonetheless goes a long way to explaining why we have such low rape conviction rates. When it comes to abortion, anti-choice activists accuse women going into abortion clinics of taking the easy way out, as if raising an unwanted child is the rightful price of having sex.
While most everyone can see the absurdity of Akin’s comments, fewer pick up on the deeper problem of “rape exceptions” to abortion bans. When journalists and politicians refer to banning abortions except in the case of rape, they are assuming that there’s a way to construct abortion policy that allows women who “deserve” abortions to get them while preventing those dirty girls who consented to sex from having them. This is simply not the case.
We know from research that even with a rape exception, most rape victims who seek an abortion will be denied. Take Medicaid, for instance, which will not cover an abortion unless the patient is a rape victim. Research by Ibis Reproductive Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving women's access to reproductive services, has shown that only 37 percent of women who qualified for rape exceptions got the necessary funding for their abortions. Between the onerous paperwork demands to demonstrate that one is, to use Akin’s term, a “legitimate” rape victim and bureaucrats who are understandably anxious about making exceptions even when they’re called for, doctors and patients simply found it impossible to get the funding they need.
In this light, what’s surprising is not that an anti-choice politician accused pregnant rape victims of lying to cover their shame, but that anti-choice politicians manage to avoid saying similar things with regularity. Unfortunately, we live in a political climate where statements like Akin’s will likely be dismissed as a gaffe instead of serving as an opportunity to discuss what motivates such myths. Such is the nature of our shallow, scandal-driven media: It points our heads in the direction of deeper truths, but moves to the next story before we can take the time to see them.