Rep. Todd Akin, for now the Missouri GOP’s nominee to take on Sen. Claire McCaskill in November, set off a Twitter firestorm Sunday when he told a St. Louis TV show that women don’t often get pregnant from rape: “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there are over 32,000 pregnancies a year that result from rape. But maybe those aren’t the “legitimate” rapes that Akin had in mind. His use of “legitimate” meant “real” or “properly so called” rather than “permissible,” but that doesn’t help much since it means there must be other rapes that aren’t real or aren’t properly so called. And what are they? From the context, he doesn’t seem to be talking about hoaxes, and it would be astonishing if a Republican Senate candidate were trying to define statutory rape away.
So what was he getting at? A generation ago militant feminists were reputed to believe that all men are rapists and all sex — of the heterosexual kind, at least — is rape. (Snopes debunks the claim that Catharine MacKinnon in particular ever said just this.) Sex laws in the 1980s and early 1990s were in flux, with feminists and the religious right alike reacting, but in very different ways, to the relaxed ethos that had reached Roman Polanski depths in the 1970s. These were the days when the concepts of date rape and marital rape entered popular consciousness, with a certain amount of pushback from rightists worried that radical feminists would exploit these concepts against men, the family, and religion. Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood would become symbols of feminism’s legal reach (or overreach).
It turned out, however, that MacKinnon — whose views were certainly radical, if not verbatim what her critics said they were — would not get her every wish, and militant feminism as a whole lost momentum once Bill Clinton was in office. Nina Burleigh wrote the movement’s epitaph when she said she would go down on her knees for Clinton just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.
Yet the “culture war” is a lot like the Cold War: the passing of a moment of genuine uncertainty and fear hasn’t stopped ideologues from pretending that the crisis is still upon us. Akin is still fighting MacKinnon and still seems to believe that acknowledging certain rapes as “legitimate” crimes will result in victory for man-hating feminists.
Beyond that, however, Akin’s aggressive ignorance about biology suggests something worse than overreaction to MacKinnon. If women rarely get pregnant from rape that isn’t “legitimate,” doesn’t that mean that women who do get pregnant from what they claim was rape are probably lying?
It’s not as if it’s always easy to tell the difference between “forcible” rape and any other kind: a woman who submits when a gun is pointed at her is not necessarily going to shows signs of rape inconsistent with those of consensual intercourse. Akin wasn’t trying to address difficult questions of forensic science here, but he unavoidably dismisses “legitimate” rape cases alongside those he thinks are illegitimate. His pseudo-science compounds the error.
Akin stumbled into this as he was trying to defend his position on abortion, which allows no exceptions for rape or incest. If you simply deny that there are significant numbers of women who will be forced to carry their rapists’ children to term, the problem of explaining to all women why this is a reasonable, humane course of action disappears. Reclassifying many rapes as not real or “legitimate,” while telling a fairytale about the unlikelihood of “rape-rape” leading to pregnancy, is an easy way to play down those CDC numbers and dismiss any doubts — not least your own.
Akin may be too dim to understand the implications of his policies, but others are not. There are no happily-ever-after endings in abortion policy: consistent proponents of abortion rights are faced with having to accept sex-selection and eugenic abortions and a rather arbitrary definition of human life. Those who consistently oppose abortion, as Akin does, have to acknowledge that they are significantly compromising many women’s ability to decide their own futures. People who favor a middle way, finally, are curtailing both rights and life in some degree and satisfying neither “logical” extreme. There’s a reason abortion politics is hard and divisive. Trying to make it less troubling by defining rape down, however, is simply unconscionable.