Since yesterday morning, political conversation has been dominated by the comments of Todd Akin, a (formerly) obscure Missouri congressman and Republican candidate for Senate. "First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told local reporters, explaining his absolute opposition to abortion, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
And if these natural defenses fail? “Let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something,” Akin said. “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
Captured in these words is a constellation of ugly ideas about women, beginning with the ludicrous belief that some rapes are “legitimate,” others fake, and that through some undiscovered mechanism, the female body will prevent implantation in the case of the former. Indeed, his statement betrays the extent to which Akin isn’t concerned with life—of either the fetus or the mother.
The distinction between “illegitimate” and “legitimate” rape only makes sense if you understand it as a distinction between women who have sex and women who have sex “forced” on them. For Akin—and many in the anti-abortion movement—the latter are essentially blameless, and because of that, their bodies will act accordingly (it’s worth reading this piece by The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta, which explains the history behind this belief). Women who live their lives with sexual agency, by contrast, have forfeited their right to safety; on some level, they must have been “asking” for it.
Of course, rapists don’t operate according to these distinctions. They are predatory and opportunistic; the actual identity of the woman is irrelevant to their desire to harm. As for the idea that the female body will reject rapist sperm? It’s ridiculous—“among adult women,” according to recent research, “an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year” in the United States.
Akin claims to have “misspoke”—though, if that’s true, it’s unclear what he actually meant—but some Republicans have already begun to distance themselves from his candidacy. Montana Representative Dennis Rehberg has called the remarks “offensive and reprehensible,” correctly noting that “There is no such thing as a ‘legitimate rape.’” GOP consultant Patrick Ruffini wondered, aloud, whether Missouri Republicans should dump Akin as a candidate, and Team Romney—no strangers to avoiding controversy—issued a generic statement of disapproval:
“Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement,” the Romney campaign said. “A Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.”
For as much as this is a weak statement—highlighting the extent to which Romney can’t stray far from his right-wing base—it’s also a flip-flop for both him and Paul Ryan. Late last year, Romney came out in favor of state-based “personhood” amendments, which would give full legal protection to fertilized eggs and embryos, and outlaw abortion as well as in-vitro fertilization and most forms of birth control. Paul Ryan is even further to the right; he co-sponsored the Protect Life Act in the House, which would make “personhood” the law of the land, and allow state legislatures to end reproductive choice
Which gets to the core problem facing Team Romney and the Republican Party: Akin isn’t out of the mainstream. GOP-controlled state legislatures in at least ten states have considered or passed personhood amendments. Two-hundred-thirty-six House Republicans voted for the Protect Life Act last October, and earlier this year, Paul Ryan worked with Todd Akin to redefine rape so that Medicaid would only cover abortion services for “forcible rape,” an otherwise bizarre term (by definition, rape is forcible) that serves as a synonym for “legitimate rape.”
Akin’s opponent in the Missouri Senate primary has condemned him for the statement, but even she would be supporting a Republican Party that has taken a genuinely radical turn on abortion, and seeks to outlaw it completely. If Akin were a little more savvy, and a little less open about his beliefs, he would have escaped this storm completely. By revealing the truth of where the GOP stands, he has just jeopardized the party’s chance at taking the Senate.
If he loses in November, liberals should consider sending him a fruit basket.