Honestly, some days I can’t tell real news from The Onion. Representative Todd Akin’s staggering comment on Sunday about the female body’s amazing ability to reject unwanted sperm actually made my jaw drop. If only it didn’t represent what so many people believe, as Amanda Marcotte explained so clearly here yesterday. The good news is that it flushed those beliefs out into the open. As she said, it’s not a gaffe; it’s an insight into the anti-choice movement’s distrust of women and its ignorance of science. (The fact that Akin’s on the House Science Committee is just one of those hilariously horrifying Onion-style bits of data: Do we really live in a country where a “don’t confuse me with the facts” anti-science ideologue makes policy about … science?) That magical thinking behind Akin's statement arises from an attitude similar—in ideology, not in degree—to that behind honor killings, in which raped girls who refuse to marry their rapists are killed by male relatives for sullying their family's honor. The idea is that rape somehow brings shame on the woman, not the rapist. If they weren’t lying, if they didn’t want it, their bodies would reject the sperm.
So while the political folks make unwitting sex jokes in their responses and headlines (Akin called his comment “ill conceived”—you can’t make this stuff up!—and TPMCafe wrote “Akin Advisers Make Preparations For Withdrawal Tomorrow”), let’s look at some of yesterday’s smart commentary and reporting about how this reveals what too many Americans actually believe.
At TheAtlantic.com, the brilliant Garance Franke-Ruta (a Prospect alumna) reported on the recent history of this widely believed canard, with detailed sources.
The thing is, his comments were hardly some kind never-before-heard gaffe. Arguments like his have cropped up again and again on the right over the past quarter century and the idea that trauma is a form of birth control continues to be promulgated by anti-abortion forces that seek to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The push for a no-exceptions anti-abortion policy has for decades gone hand in hand with efforts to downplay the frequency with which rape- or incest-related pregnancies occur, and even to deny that they happen, at all. In other words, it's not just Akin singing this tune.
Akin himself has tried to clarify that he’s talking about “legitimate rape” and “forced rape,” which themselves are extremist rape definitions—absurdly narrow, designed to exclude out such forms of sexual violation as statutory rape, drunken or drugged rape, coercive rape, marital rape (I mean, isn’t the marriage certificate a license for him to have sex?), or date rape. Nick Baumann at MoJo has a good summary of how Akin fits into that effort, reporting that:
Pro-life advocates believed they needed to include the word "forcible" in the law to preempt what National Right to Life Committee lobbyist Doug Johnson called a "brazen" effort by Planned Parenthood and other groups to obtain federal funding for abortions for any teenager by (falsely) claiming statutory rape. Abortion rights groups, Johnson warned, wanted to "federally fund the abortion of tens of thousands of healthy babies of healthy moms, based solely on the age of their mothers." Richard Doerflinger, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' top anti-abortion lobbyist, echoed Johnson in congressional testimony, arguing that the "forcible" language was "an effort on the part of the sponsors to prevent the opening of a very broad loophole for federally funded abortions for any teenager."
(Check out Sady Doyle’s and Amanda Marcotte fabulous and successful twitter campaign against this redefinition last year here.) Remember when Whoopi Goldberg was making excuses for Roman Polanski, saying that isolating, drugging, and assaulting a 13-year-old wasn’t really “rape-rape”? This campaign would be like that, but with the force of law.
But wait, there’s more. The idea that the female body has magical powers to decide under what conditions it will allow a spermatozoa to pierce its ovum goes way, way back, beyond the past 25 years. It’s literally a medieval idea. Next up: the sun goes around the earth. Vanessa Heggie at The Guardian reported on this at some length:
The legal position that pregnancy disproved a claim of rape appears to have been instituted in the UK sometime in the 13th century. One of the earliest British legal texts, Fleta, has a clause in the first book of the second volume stating that:
"If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive."
Reuters picked this up in its reporting, and added the more contemporary interpretation of the myth, noting that the new rape apologists believe that stress and trauma prevent pregnancy. But the facts are otherwise:
Although the trauma of rape might impair a woman's fertility months or years later, said Levy, "you're not going to interrupt something (like the release of an egg) that's already started."
In fact, several reports noted, rape victims may have a higher-than-average conception rate. After all, these women are not planning to have sex, and so may be less likely to be using contraception. And do rapists whip out their condoms first? (Remember that the overwhelming majority of rapes—including intoxication and date rapes—are committed by a very small minority of repeat predators).
The ideology underlying this slip-up, in which Akin expressed the views of millions of Americans, matters profoundly for women. As the indefatigable Irin Carmon noted at Salon:
Another study found that as many as 22,000 of 25,000 pregnancies resulting from rape in a given year could have been prevented by access to emergency contraception — the same pill that Akin wants to universally ban. That, too, is a matter of latter-day policy debate, as we learned when the Obama administration capitulated to people like Akin by declining to make it over the counter for everyone, including those adolescents who might not want to ask their dads, stepfathers or uncles to take them to a doctor for a prescription.
All this is of a piece with the amazing and horrifying series of anti-contraception and anti-female sexuality comments we saw last winter. (Can you say “aspirin between your knees”?) Komen has been rightly kneecapped by its brief and ideological attempt to defund Planned Parenthood’s full range of reproductive health services—breast cancer screenings, emergency contraception, vasectomy counseling—with even founder Nancy Brinker stepping down from the presidency (although she’ll stay the CEO), news buried during the August doldrums.
We’re back in a full-on culture war over whether women should be able to control their own bodies or should be punished for having sex (or even for having reproductive systems!). We can thank Representative Akin for bringing that to our attention once again.
Oh, and just in case you need the reference for conversations with your Uncle Joe, here are the facts, from the NIH:
Rape-related pregnancy: estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women.
Holmes MM, Resnick HS, Kilpatrick DG, Best CL.
We attempted to determine the national rape-related pregnancy rate and provide descriptive characteristics of pregnancies that result from rape.
A national probability sample of 4008 adult American women took part in a 3-year longitudinal survey that assessed the prevalence and incidence of rape and related physical and mental health outcomes.
The national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45); among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. Among 34 cases of rape-related pregnancy, the majority occurred among adolescents and resulted from assault by a known, often related perpetrator. Only 11.7% of these victims received immediate medical attention after the assault, and 47.1% received no medical attention related to the rape. A total 32.4% of these victims did not discover they were pregnant until they had already entered the second trimester; 32.2% opted to keep the infant whereas 50% underwent abortion and 5.9% placed the infant for adoption; an additional 11.8% had spontaneous abortion.
Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency. It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence. As we address the epidemic of unintended pregnancies in the United States, greater attention and effort should be aimed at preventing and identifying unwanted pregnancies that result from sexual victimization.