Rep. Todd Akin, the man nominated by Missouri Republicans two weeks ago to run for the U.S. Senate, has an interesting idea about the female reproductive system. Yesterday on KTVI-TV in St. Louis, Akin was asked whether abortion should be permitted in the case of a pregnancy caused by rape. He answered:
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.
Denying rape survivors a right to abortion is hard to defend. Challenging whether reported rapes are “legitimate” is downright retro. And the suggestion that getting pregnant means you weren’t really raped is so stupid and offensive it’s almost unbelievable, even for a congressman. Within hours, Republicans recognized that Akin had created a huge, potentially fatal political problem with women.
Actually, the damage goes deeper. Abortion for rape victims isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a crime issue.
Rape has always played this role in the abortion debate. If you’re a pro-choice candidate running against a pro-lifer, you can motivate your base by talking about women’s rights. You can pick up some independents by arguing that the government shouldn’t interfere in private decisions. But to cut into your opponent’s support—to pry away voters who are socially conservative—you need a sharper angle. That angle is rape.
The logic is brutally simple. Rape victims didn’t choose to have sex. This exempts them from the common conservative notion that women should live with the consequences of their choices. And this exemption, in turn, transforms the virgin/whore dichotomy into a weapon against pro-lifers. It also turns the culture of law and order against them. It puts them in the politically untenable (though morally consistent) position of defending the result of a violent crime. That’s why Akin bought and peddled the idea that “legitimate” rape victims can shut down pregnancy. Pregnancy from rape violates his righteous understanding of nature.
Over the years, dozens of pro-choice politicians have exploited this angle. I’ll quote just two of them. Here’s President Clinton in 1995: "It's one thing to say that the taxpayers should not pay for a legal abortion that arises from a poor woman's own decision. That's one thing. Quite another to say the same rules apply to rape and incest." And here’s Rep. Steny Hoyer (now the House Democratic whip) in 1989: “God was gracious. And Willie Horton did not impregnate that woman that he raped in Maryland. But if he had, colleagues, if he had, which one of us would have stood before her and said, ‘Carry Willie Horton’s baby to term’?”
Does abortion for rape victims really connect with law-and-order voters? To check the data, I went to the University of California’s Survey Documentation and Analysis site, where you can run customized cross-tabulations using the multidecade General Social Survey. I started with the GSS rape question: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she became pregnant as a result of rape.” For comparison, I selected an identically phrased GSS question about a scenario in which “the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children.”