Todd Akin's "Legitimate Rape" Comment Was Not a Misstatement. It Was a Worldview

What Women Really Think
Aug. 20 2012 10:24 AM

Todd Akin's "Legitimate Rape" Comment Was Not a Misstatement. It Was a Worldview.

Rep. Todd Akin did not simply misspeak.

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Nickelodeon

Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, the Republican candidate for the Missouri Senate race, told a St. Louis news station on Sunday that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Laura Helmuth Laura Helmuth

Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor. 

He later took it back, but this wasn’t a misstatement. It wasn’t a gaffe or a stray bit of medical misinformation that could have attached itself to any one of us. The statement was a crystallization of Akin’s worldview: sexist, blame-shifting, and profoundly ignorant.


In case anybody missed this dig at the “no means no” crowd, “legitimate rape” is a coded phrase meant to distinguish between a stranger attacking you in a parking garage, or, say, your date or your youth pastor doing the same. If you’re tipsy or wearing a short skirt, it’s not rape-rape, etc.

The statement was actually intended to soften Akin’s absolute opposition to abortion, even in the case of rape or incest. Why bother to have loopholes for such conditions when they’re going to be so rare, goes his thinking? As Talking Points Memo notes, the Congressman has long suspected that rape and abortion laws are less likely to protect women from abuse than to allow them to be abusive:

Akin’s past includes praising a militia group linked to anti-abortion extremism in the 1990s and voting against creating a sex-offender registry in 2005. Back in 1991, as a state legislator, Akin voted for an anti-marital-rape law, but only after questioning whether it might be misused “in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband,” according to a May 1 article that year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via LexisNexis).

The sexism is outrageous, but it’s the stupidity that really burns. It takes a lot of work for a member of the House science committee to cultivate an ignorance of science as profound as Todd Akin’s. It’s not accidental and it’s not incidental to his worldview—his belief system requires a rejection of science.

The thing about science, as Neil DeGrasse-Tyson says, is that it’s true whether you believe it or not. And the truth is that biology does not give a goddamn how sperm meets egg, whether it’s within the bounds of a sanctified marriage, in a test tube, or after a rape.

One of the great gifts of modern medicine is that we can control when and whether eggs are released (through the pill), whether sperm encounter the egg (condoms or vasectomy), whether a fertilized egg implants in the uterus (IUDs), and yes, whether it stays there (abortion). Trauma may increase the spontaneous miscarriage rate, but the effect is trivial, and tens of thousands of women are impregnated by rape annually.

But if you believe that the Bible is the “inerrant word of God,” as Akin apparently does, given his Master of Divinity from the Covenant Theological Seminary, then you can believe all kinds of things. That the world is 6,000 years old, for instance, and that evolution is a conspiracy organized by pretty much every biologist, geologist, paleontologist, ecologist, biochemist and geneticist working in the past century and a half, plus Satan. If God can produce Jesus through a virgin birth, he can certainly prevent a worthy-enough victim of “legitimate rape” from carrying her rapist’s child.

(And just to be clear, it’s not that he’s up on the latest evolutionary biology speculation about sperm priming and miscarriage. This idea has been bouncing around conservative circles for years as an excuse for defending an absolute ban on abortion.)

Akin and other Missouri conservatives are now trying to perpetuate this massive misinformation campaign on school children. Missouri’s “Right to Pray” amendment, which passed this month, allows kids to opt out of any educational assignments that conflict with their beliefs. As the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, that means children have a legal right to refuse to participate in biology class. Or, presumably, sex ed, where they would have to learn about basic reproductive biology, a class Todd Akin apparently skipped.



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