Just What Is a “Legitimate” Rape?
By now I’m sure that you’ve heard about the ridiculous comments by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri) who claimed that women who experience a “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant because their bodies have a mechanism to prevent pregnancy. Here are Rep. Akin’s actual comments:
It seems to me, 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. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.
And note that he isn’t the first to make this sort of suggestion. In the ’90s a Pennsylvania state legislator (Stephen Freind) claimed:
The trauma of rape causes women to “secrete a certain secretion which has the tendency to kill sperm”.
And a North Carolina legislator said:
The facts show that people who are raped — truly raped — the juices don’t flow.
Fay Boozman, a candidate for the Senate from Arkansas (later tapped by Gov. Mike Huckabee to run the Arkansas Health Department) claimed:
[F]ear-induced hormonal changes could block a rape victim’s ability to conceive.
And in 1999, John Wilke, then president of National Right to Life, wrote:
To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. … 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.
(Thanks to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at the Washington Post for these quotations.)
I’ll let others explain (as if they really need to…) why this is just patently false. For what it’s worth, there is a peer-reviewed study from the late ’90s that shows that approximately 32,000 pregnancies per year are the result of rape. In other words, the issue of whether a woman who becomes pregnant because of rape should be able to obtain an abortion isn’t just some hypothetical exercise; rather, it is a real problem.
But anyway, what I want to focus on is Rep. Akin’s concept of “legitimate rape”. As I see it, there are really two things going on here. First, there is the notion some women may complain of having been raped in order to obtain an abortion. In other words, women will lie about the circumstances surrounding their pregnancy in order to get an abortion. Might that be true in some cases? Sure. But we must also recognize that an enormous number of rapes each year go unreported by the victims for a whole range of reasons. So the question becomes, I guess, whether abortions should be more difficult to obtain for women who are raped because some women might lie about having been raped.
I’m also reminded of the Georgia Republican who tried to change the law to require that women who had been raped no longer be referred to as victims (but, rather, “accusers”) until the person that they were accusing of rape had actually been convicted. Just think of the distrust of women demonstrated by this sort of reasoning.
Of course, that’s only part of the problem. To me, at least, the bigger issue is that some people simply don’t accept some sorts of conduct as falling within the definition of “rape” in the first place. I remember back in the ’90s having discussions with my then 90-year-old grandfather about the Mike Tyson rape case. In my grandfather’s view, once a woman goes back to a man’s hotel room, she loses the right to say “no”. Unfortunately, that worldview (expressed by a man raised in Europe in the early part of the 20th Century) still seems to hold true for many people today. But they seem to go even further. There is also a notion, among some, that there is no such thing as marital rape (according to popular conservative activist and attorney Phyllis Schlafly: “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape”); in other words, a woman has no right to say “no” to sexual relations with her husband. Still others hold to the idea that unless a woman fights back, it wasn’t really a rape (thus, for example, a drunk woman too inebriated to give legitimate consent, nevertheless isn’t being raped but rather just taken advantage of … and besides, the thinking seems to go, she’s at least partially at fault for getting drunk).
Recall, too, that Rep. Akin (along with Indiana Gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence and GOP Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan) co-sponsored a bill last year that would have changed the law about funding for abortion by limiting the existing exception for rape to include only “forcible rape” (a term that wasn’t defined in the bill).
I’d be curious to know how people like Rep. Akin view cases of statutory rape. Has a 15-year-old high school student who has “consensual” sex with her 23-year-old English teacher been the victim of a “legitimate rape” or, since she said “yes” and he didn’t hit her, is it not really a rape at all? What about a wife that tries to fight off her husband, specifically because she doesn’t want to get pregnant?
The other question to ask, of course, is why people like Rep. Akin go down this intellectual (or anti-intellectual) path in the first place. I think that’s actually an easy one. If you can convince yourself (let alone your constituents) that the only women who get pregnant by “rape” weren’t really raped at all and if you can convince yourself (and your constituents) that “real” rape doesn’t lead to pregnancy, then you don’t have to answer the hard questions in your single-minded opposition to abortion. You don’t have to ask whether the mentally-disabled 10-year-old girl who becomes pregnant via incestuous rape by her uncle should be able to get an abortion. Or you can sleep more easily at night “knowing” that the woman dragged into an alley and raped must have actually wanted it or enjoyed it, otherwise her body would have “secreted some secretions” and fought off the sperm (or something); because she wanted it or enjoyed it or was asking for it or whatever, she “obviously” shouldn’t be entitled to an abortion
Thankfully many Republicans are today coming out and strongly criticizing Rep. Akin’s comments. But there are others that are either keeping silent or even defending him. Seriously. The truth remains that there are many anti-choice activists that believe that their understanding and worldview is correct, that they “know” more than the woman involved, and therefore, the woman’s choice is subordinate to this anti-choice worldview. And, when these folks can’t get their way legitimately, they have no compunction about lying. Just look at the bills that require doctors to tell women that a fetus can feel pain or that abortion leads to breast cancer and depression, even in the absence of supporting legitimate scientific evidence.
We can’t continue to elect to our legislatures people — and especially men — with such profound lack of trust in women and science and truth. We cannot allow our laws to be made by people who, at least insofar as we’re looking at their views of woman and the world around them, are virtually indistinguishable from the Taliban.
If you don’t believe in abortion fine. Make your argument. Explain why it’s bad for society or for women. Make your moral argument too. But don’t just make up junk science. Don’t accuse woman of lying simply in order to avoid confronting the hard parts of your point of view. Don’t presume that your religious understanding is correct and all others are wrong. And most of all, don’t presume that you are in a position superior to that of a pregnant woman to make the decision that is best for her and her family.
A final note: Indiana has already passed some strict limits on abortion (and tried to pass more) even with a Governor who wanted a truce on social issues. If we elect Rep. Mike Pence as our next Governor, we’re going to find ourselves with a true social conservative activist in the Governor’s mansion and Hoosier women (among many others) will pay the price.
After writing the post above (but before having a chance to go back and proofread it), I saw that Rep. Akin had further clarified his comments (earlier, he noted that had “misspoken”). Now, he’s explained his “misstatement”. It should come as no surprise that he know says that, when he said “legitimate” rape, what he really meant was … you guessed it: “forcible” rape:
"I was talking about forcible rape," [Akin] said. "I used the wrong word.”
Ah, yes. The “wrong word” defense. So, if we substitute the “right” word, what he meant to say was:
It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a forcible rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
Also, after I wrote the post above (during lunch … a salad!) but before I had a chance to proofread and publish, I came across the terrific article “Rape can make you pregnant. Period.” by Dr. Aaron Carroll, one of the best writers and speakers on healthcare issues (and someone that I’m proud to call a friend). Here’s the “money” quote:
If you put sperm near egg, women can get pregnant.
There is nothing at all about a woman's mindset that affects this. Women can't wish pregnancy away. If they could, then many teen pregnancies wouldn't occur; few teens want to get pregnant. But think of the larger picture. Women in abusive relationships get pregnant. Women in horrible socioeconomic conditions get pregnant. And, yes, women who have been raped get pregnant.
The body doesn't differentiate between “legitimate” rape and “illegitimate” rape — whatever that is. The body doesn't know whether the rapist is known to a victim. The body doesn't know if a knife or a gun, or alcohol or drugs (or any combination of them), were used.
Every sexual encounter does not lead to pregnancy, but every sexual encounter leads to the possibility of pregnancy. Period.