August 22, 2012

Legitimate Rape

Representative Todd Akin (R-Miss.) finds himself at the center of a political firestorm which he ignited by a now infamous allusion to "legitimate rape" and his belief that pregnancy from rape is rare because a woman's body "shuts the whole thing down," whatever that means. Were the subject not so serious, the affair would be grotesquely entertaining, one of those hyper-ironic "only in America" moments that connoisseurs of politics treasure.

But the topic is a serious one. The statement is a grievous error in fact. The mindset revealed by those hurtful and cruel remarks is indicative of values shared by too many people. The way I read it, Congressman Akin seems to be implying that if a woman becomes pregnant due to a rape, then some small part of her must have consented to the act. According to Akin, nature acts to shield woman from pregnancy by rape, so if the woman does become pregnant, then it must not have been "legitimate" rape.

The rate of pregnancy from rape is inherently difficult to estimate, especially given that rape is an under-reported crime, by over 50 percent according to some estimates. A couple of studies conducted on small groups of woman found that 5 to 6 percent of women aged 12-45 who were raped became pregnant. Other large-scale studies have found that the pregnancy rate from a single act of intercourse is 3.1 percent, suggesting that, contrary to what Congressman Akin believes, rape is perhaps more likely to result in pregnancy than a single act of consensual sex.

But statistics do not get to the heart of the matter. Sparing a woman the consequences of rape has always been common ground that opponents and supporters of abortion could agree on. It is just common decency not to force a woman to endure a pregnancy caused by an act of sexual violence against her person. (Of course, not every woman terminates a pregnancy from rape; that's why they call it the right to choose.)

The entire Republican Party establishment has recoiled from Congressman Akin's remarks, but this won't go away that easily. Paul Ryan, who is Mitt Romney's choice for vice-president, voted pretty much in lock-step with Akin when it came to abortion. Ryan goes even further, believing that abortion is permissible only if the life of the mother is threatened, a view now being retouched and softened by the Romney campaign.

Ryan was also a co-sponsor of legislation, along with Akin and over 200 other House Republicans, that would have limited abortions funded by Medicaid to only those cases involving "forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest," which is almost certainly what Akin was thinking about when he made his comments. The addition of the word "forcible" was seen by many as introducing a significant restriction on what forms of abortion could be funded. That language was eliminated, but apparently it lingered in Akin's subconscious, only to come out in a revelatory slip of the tongue.

It's funny how these things work out. No doubt there are many Democrats who have equally stringent views on abortion, but the fact remains that opposition to abortion in just about any form is a core Republican Party value. That said, the last thing the Republican Party wants is for this election to be about abortion, but thanks to a Missouri-mule stubborn congressman, abortion is once again front and center as part of the national debate.

This is as it should be. There is a small but determined group of legislators who would undermine a woman's right to choose by any and all means. They prefer to operate out of the limelight, using deceptively worded bills with lofty sounding titles. If Akin were to win, control of the Senate might well shift to the Republicans. Think about what that would mean on an issue like abortion.

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