Preface: Why a “revised and expanded” version of this article? Following the (admittedly, rushed) publication of the original post a couple nights ago, I did some more research and was forced to reassess a couple of points (h/t Mark E. on FB). Rather than edit the existing post, I thought a new post with additional information might be more beneficial.
Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) is being put through the ringer for recent comments during an interview in St. Louis. Seems to me there are three main things people are objecting to, which I’ll try to parse out.
First, of course, is Akin’s use of the phrase “legitimate rape”. For anyone who has heard/read what he said, it is — well, it should be — clear from the context that Akin was not implying that rape is ever “legitimate” in the sense of being “OK, acceptable, no big deal”. That’s ridiculous. Even if one believed such a thing, s/he’d have to be incredibly obtuse to say so in public in America. Akin may have erred in his choice of words, but I don’t think he’s that stupid.
On the contrary, I believe he was using a qualifying statement to differentiate actual, “forcible” rape, with all the physiological & psychological stress that involves, from incidents that turn out not to be rape at all. Yeah, that’s going to get me (and Akin) in trouble, too, for suggesting not all rape claims are valid, but it happens. It’s documented, and sometimes even sensationalized. (The Tawana Brawley and Duke Lacrosse Team cases/scandals come immediately to mind.)
Consider the following:
- Sometimes a woman/girl consents but later decides she’s ashamed or thinks she was taken advantage of, so she accuses the guy of rape.
- Sometimes a woman/girl is unfaithful, gets pregnant, and uses rape to explain it to her husband or boyfriend.
- Some women/girls claim rape in order to justify an abortion.
- Claims of marital-rape, as Akin has suggested elsewhere, can be misused “in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband.”
- Some feminists and other activists tend to broaden their definition of rape to include things even some “victims” don’t consider rape.
- Let’s not forget the unreported rapes, though these numbers are probably not as high as some assert.
- “Statutory rape” can be consensual.
All of these factors affect statistics on rape and rape-pregnancy, making accurate research difficult. With that in mind, I agree with Congressman Akin on the… legitimacy of the word “legitimate”, however ill-chosen it now appears to have been.
So, what did Akin say about instances of “legitimate rape”? That’s the second issue. He claimed that pregnancy rarely results from (real) rape, because the trauma typically causes the female body “to shut that whole thing down.” Now, why would he say such a thing? I don’t think it was because of some centuries-old, legal idea that said conception is impossible during rape, so pregnancy implies consent. (I had never heard of such a thing until I started researching this.) Rather, I think it more likely that Akin was familiar with theories proposed by a handful of medical professionals in recent decades, and latched onto by some pro-lifers, that said there are physiological/biochemical factors that work greatly against the odds of fertilization during highly traumatic circumstances. For example, in a 1985 book and later in a 1999 article, Dr. John C. Willke discussed his theory:
“[W]hat is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant [is the] physical trauma. Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get 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 that 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.”
I had heard something along these lines, as well, which is why I originally agreed wholeheartedly with this aspect of Akin’s statement. (I even repeated it in an earlier post,… which I will be modifying shortly.) The first problem is that other doctors are highly doubtful, and Willke didn’t appear to have any hard evidence. A general practitioner with obstetric training, he based his theory on anecdotal evidence and limited, personal observation. The second problem is that later studies have indicated no such phenomenon.
“It is beyond comprehension that someone can be so ignorant about the emotional and physical trauma brought on by rape,” McCaskill said in a statement. “The ideas that Todd Akin has expressed about the serious crime of rape and the impact on its victims are offensive.” — from the Washington Post
Claire McCaskill’s statement above reminds me of something. I have been told that some people who object to Akin’s comments might be interpreting them to mean something along the lines of, “If you did get pregnant from a sexual assault, it was either not really rape or you just weren’t appropriately traumatized by it to keep from getting pregnant.” In other words, it’s the victim’s fault. From what I’ve tried to explain thus far, I hope you can see that that wasn’t the case. I don’t believe Akin was in any way diminishing the trauma of (actual) rape, whether or not it results in a pregnancy, nor blaming the victim.
So,… what percentage of rapes result in pregnancy? (Note that both Akin and Willke claimed rape-pregnancy was “rare”, not non-existent.) Studies vary widely in their estimates, with some having too small a sample to be statistically significant; others try to aggregate the smaller samples and come up with an overall percentage. One study, looking at 2190 victims, reported pregnancy in only 0.6%. Other statistical estimates put it as low as 0.1%. On the opposite end, I read somewhere a claim in the double-digits (12%? 20%?). Even with the larger studies, they often run into the same issues mentioned above that throw their accuracy at least somewhat in doubt. Plus, there is the problem of research surveys being unclear, using poor or misleading questions, or dubious methodology.
By far, the most widely quoted study seems to be that by Holmes et al., reported in 1996, constituting a 3-year longitudinal survey of 4008 American women. The national rape-related pregnancy rate was determined to be 5% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45). If 0.1% or 0.6% is representative, I’d say that’s “rare”. If it’s really 5% or so, “rare” might be stretching it, but it certainly isn’t “common”.
Has Dr. Willke’s theory been disproven, then? Not necessarily. As Dr. Pia de Solenni points out at her blog,
“To say that there’s no solid data is not the same thing as refuting a theory…. Interestingly, when searching the terms ‘nytimes.com stress infertility,’ the first ten articles, all from the NYT, included seven which suggested a link between the ability to get pregnant and stress. One article proclaimed no such link. Two were irrelevant. WebMD offers references to several articles supporting a connection between infertility and stress. Now, if women trying to get pregnant are impeded by stress and the associated hormone factors, I don’t think it’s a far stretch to wonder if women who are raped might have a lesser rate of pregnancy resulting from the rape. After all, being the victim of a violent crime would be stressful, to say the least.”
I guess the jury’s still out on this one….
When it comes down to the moral argument against abortion, though, the statistics are irrelevant. And, here we get to the third issue. Congressman Akin stated that he does not think an exception should be made for abortions in the case of rape. Even when conception does occur as a result, the unborn child should not be punished by taking its life. The rapist deserves punishment, yes. The child, no. I totally agree with Akin’s statement on this point, as well. (I’ve blogged on the rape-pregnancy issue here.) If the unborn is indeed fully human from conception, then even the most traumatic circumstances under which s/he was conceived are not sufficient reasons for eliminating the life of the smallest, most innocent victim.
I’m not surprised that those on the Left would capitalize on Akin’s pseudo-gaffe and twist it to their benefit, in hopes of hurting his reputation and chances against Democrat Claire McCaskill in their race for the Senate. But, I’m rather disappointed in Senators Cornyn and McConnell (among others) for so quickly urging Akin to drop out of his race. Did they actually listen to Akin’s comments in context? Or, are they just running in fear of bad press? (Akin’s gonna get that, anyway. He’s running a political campaign, after all!) It’s this third issue that seems to be the biggest problem for some conservatives, who, sadly, deem the position to be too far right. The Romney/Ryan camp is distancing itself, saying they “disagree” and “would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.” Not too surprising from Romney, but Ryan is on record as holding the same position as Akin. However, as Ryan himself explained,
“Mitt Romney’s going to be the president. The president sets the policy. His policy is exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. I’m comfortable with it because it’s a good step in the right direction. I’ll leave it at that.”
Republican aides have admitted that it’s more about politics than semantics.
“Before Akin’s comments, he was considered a virtual lock to beat McCaskill and get the GOP one seat closer to the four they need to win control of the U.S. Senate. But after Akin’s name became synonymous with ‘legitimate rape’ overnight, top GOP leaders made the calculation that Missouri, and thus the Senate and possibly even the White House, could be outside of their reach with Akin on the ticket. Not only would his continued presence ensure that Akin, not McCaskill, was the focal point in the Missouri Senate race, but Akin also would keep the issue of abortion and women’s health front and center in the campaign in a year when Republicans want to focus on jobs, the economy, and Barack Obama’s record on both.” — from The Daily Beast
Akin apologized on “Huckabee” for calling any sort of rape “legitimate”. But, he asked for forgiveness and said, “The good people of Missouri nominated me, and I’m not a quitter.”
As to whether or not Akin should drop out of Missouri’s senatorial race, I’m of two minds. I blame the media for blowing the whole thing out of proportion, of course. His dropping out should not even have been a subject for discussion. If handled properly from the beginning, it wouldn’t be. (And he certainly shouldn’t become some pariah that other conservatives run from.) With all the time, sweat, & money invested, I can definitely understand Akin’s desire to push forward. Plus, we need another strongly pro-life voice in the Senate, and some pro-life organizations (e.g., Family Research Council, Susan B. Anthony List, Missouri Right to Life) and respected bloggers (e.g., Ryan Bomberger, Dr. Pia de Solenni) are still supporting him.
By the way, John Putnam, Missouri state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots and Republican Party chairman of Jasper County, agrees with me:
“I thought we had died and gone to heaven when [Todd Akin] got the nomination…. No question that things are rapidly deteriorating in terms of his ability to stay in the race. I hold the party somewhat responsible, mostly responsible for not pulling behind him the way the Democrats support their guys when they make a gaffe…. Todd’s comments were not inaccurate if a person knew what he meant. He didn’t get much of a chance to explain them and unfortunately hasn’t taken a very good tack in explaining,” insisted Putnam, who said Akin is “almost over-apologizing” and “the money folks in the party and the party leaders are just throwing him under the bus in nothing flat.”
But, I am also realizing that, given the way the issue has evolved and how it could risk his — and, thus, the Republicans’ — losing a Senate seat, it might be better for Akin to leave the race, “take one for the team”, so to speak. (If he does get out, here’s hoping John Brunner is selected to replace him.)
I disagree that Akin “misspoke”. No, he was clear and accurate to anyone who heard/read him in context and was not expecting to be offended or looking for an excuse to bad-mouth the guy. And, he certainly shouldn’t apologize for taking a stand for his position. (Note in the video below that the host, Jaco, didn’t seem flabbergasted at Akin’s remarks.) At worst, he’s guilty of a) being one of many to accept Dr. Willke’s theory without solid evidence and b) not being cautious enough in his choice of words.* For example, he could have used “valid” or “actual” or “forcible”, instead of “legitimate”, and maybe a parenthetical aside like “(as opposed to a false accusation of rape)”. But, he probably would still have been lambasted for not being sensitive enough, or something.
And, of course, it’s not like the Left need an excuse for bashing a pro-lifer for waging a “war against women”.
* I also wish Akin had done a better job of clarifying that ending a “tubal pregnancy” (aka ectopic) is technically not the same as an abortion. There is no medical procedure that can save the life of the child, and the mother will die if s/he isn’t removed. The objective is to save as many lives as possible, not end one for matters of convenience.