Culture, Current Events — August 22, 2012 8:00 am

Todd Akin, Abortion, Rape, and Power

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As you have probably heard, Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri recently made some dangerous and hateful remarks about rape. You can read his comments here. What could possibly cause a man (sigh) to say that “legitimate rape” does not lead to pregnancy?  Ostensibly, he was trying to make a point about the ethics of abortion. However, something deeper is going on here.

A short detour into my own experience: Growing up I was taught that, while conservative economic policies were obviously biblically based, the most important political issue was abortion. A candidate’s stance as “pro-life” trumped all other political issues. Anything bad that happened in America was probably God’s judgment for our “culture of death” that allowed abortion to continue. I remember attending rallies where I would hold a sign with blue letters that read “Abortion Kills Children.” “This is genocide! It’s as simple as A.B.C.” As cars passed, I peered around my sign and into their windows, hoping that the message would penetrate the women driving by. The distrust of women was deeply ingrained.

In college, other conservative beliefs started to fall away, but this one was persistent. One time a buddy and I were driving by a rally like the ones I had attended as a boy.

A Priest was holding the same blue sign and we stopped and argued with him. We told him “of course abortion is wrong, but your tactics are all wrong! Shaming women isn’t going to help.” At some point I realized that the shame was not a poor tactic, easily discardable, with which to reach the goal of reduced abortions; it is a core aspect of the ethics of “pro-life.”

Shame is a means of maintaining control, which brings us back to the topic at hand. Why would Akin imply that if a woman gets pregnant from a rape that it wasn’t a “legitimate rape?” Because his belief system ordains that the power to define rape should be in the hands of men. In other words, it’s all about power. His latest statement arguing that women lie about being raped, makes this crystal clear. But these are not consciously held beliefs and no matter what people like Jon Stewart say, Akin doesn’t “secretly hate women.” Having grown up in the pro-life movement, I can assure you that telling someone that they hate women only solidifies their previously held beliefs, further insulating them from ever having to confront the consequences of those beliefs.

As Adam Kotsko recently pointed out, there is an underlying logic:

if we view [conservative ideologies] in terms of strategy, they all make perfect sense. Taken together, they serve to blame the victims, assert that the powerful are powerful for moral reasons, and then claim that the role of government is to endorse and reinforce the morally-discovered power structure rather than futilely try to disrupt it. The arguments might clash on a superficial level, but their effects are perfectly coherent and rational once the goal is granted.

I hardly need to point to the Jewish prophetic tradition’s scathing critique of this type of thinking (if you need a refresher, read A Theology of Liberation). The powerful do not want to give up their power and certainly don’t want to think about the consequences of their power. And as long as we keep arguing at the level of consciously held beliefs, rape will keep getting legitimated and the oppressed will keep losing.

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  • Maybe I’m a moral monster, but I’m failing to see how Akin’s comments are wrong. You mention that Akins believes that ‘legitimate rape’ doesn’t lead to pregnancy. Akins admittedly (but unfortunately) says, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” This then leads to Evan McMorris-Santoro qualifying that statement by saying,

    “Akin said that even in the worst-case scenario — when the supposed natural protections against unwanted pregnancy fail — abortion should still not be a legal option for the rape victim.”

    So, it looks as if Akins doesn’t think legitimate rapes always and necessarily imply non-pregnancies. But even if Akins is factually wrong on that whole issue, I gather from the article that it was a subsidiary point anyway. The larger point Akins seems to be making is, “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

    Thus, the skeleton of Akins argument seems to be this:

    1. Legitimate rapes on the whole, but not always, lead to non-pregnancies.
    2. When legitimate rapes DO lead to pregnancies, legislation should be passed that punish the rapist, not the child.

    The moral outrage seems to be directed at the statistical inaccuracy of point #1. But this is a matter of statistical ignorance, not moral myopia. It’s unfortunate Akins was uninformed about the falsity of #1, but that doesn’t make anything he said a sign of immorality. A sign of intellectual integrity is when Akins admits he ‘misspoke’. What Akins should be commended for is his affirmation of point #2, which I agree with.

    Further down in the article, there is introduced a further distinction between forcible and non-forcible rape. If ‘legitimate rape’ is being equated with ‘forcible rape’, then that is clearly false, since a woman can be forcibly raped and become pregnant. I don’t like how the writer seems to be using rhetorical slight of hand to insinuate that Akins’ comments somehow agree with ‘illegitimate rape’ as being a form of ‘non-forcible rape’. But even granting that the insinuation is accurate, the term ‘forcible rape’ seems like a redundancy, like saying ‘cold ice’. What the hell would a ‘non-forcible’ rape look like?

    Putting all that aside, I’ve always believed that a candidate’s position on abortion is important, though not paramount. I agree with all you say about the unfortunate tactics pro-lifers use to disseminate their beliefs. Shame probably has a place, but it should be used as a last ditch effort: not with strategic discourse still being a live option. But I’m at a loss on how to follow your concluding point. You use the words ‘rape will keep getting legitimated’, which seems to imply that Akins would agree with rape being legitimated. The principle of charity would have me withhold judgment on this and assume I’ve misinterpreted you. So, I’ll just say that I have a hard time swallowing the notion that Akins would want to ‘legitimate rape’, meaning ‘propping up a strategic, morally-discovered power structure to ensure that the victims are blameworthy’. That would be morally atrocious, and the context of the linked article tells me that Akins was using the notion of ‘legitimate rape’ in an entirely foreign way than whatever Adam Kotsko was talking about. So, I fail to make the connection between the first and second halves of your article.

  • The whole point of the article, which you seemed to miss, is that Akin’s comments should not be taken at face value. And I’m sorry if I wasnt clear: his discourse certainly does lead to the legitimation of rape.

  • How, though? I do admit I’m not seeing the point. Akin’s comments refer to:

    1. Illegitimate rapes mostly not leading to pregnancies.
    2. Those that do need to have laws that punish the rapist, not the child.

    I agree with 2, even if 1 is statistically inaccurate. But in all of this, help me see how his comments lead to the legitimation of rape. What is meant by the ‘legitimation of rape’? Maybe this is just a case of ambiguity of terminology. This might just be a case of Akin saying something morally agreeable, even if the using the words ‘illegitimate’/’legitimate’ will ill-chosen.


  • Oops. 1 should be amended to read:

    -Legitimate rapes mostly not leading to pregnancies.

  • Hey! Read through the article again, and I think I see the point a little better, but I’m still not persuaded.

    You say, ‘Shame is a means of maintaining control, which brings us back to the topic at hand. Why would Akin imply that if a woman gets pregnant from a rape that it wasn’t a “legitimate rape?”’

    But I think Louis Peitzman makes a good point in his article found here: (–by-legitimate-rape-todd-akin-just-meant-when-the-womans-not-lying-about-being-raped). You also link to a Akin’s clarifying himself.

    Peitzman says, “When Todd Akin used the questionable phrase “legitimate rape,” he was just trying to distinguish those rapes from the ones women lie about — you know, the false rapes.”

    I think this is a valid distinction. The FBI notes that about 8% of rape cases end up being false accusations. A 2005 study put the figure around 4% (Kelly. L., Lovett, J., Regan, L. (2005). “A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases”. Home Office Research Study 293. London: Home Office.) And a whopping 47% of 109 rape cases from 1978 to 1987 were false accusations (Kanin, Eugene J., “False Rape Allegations”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 23, No. 1, Feb 1994, p. 81. (MS Word document at the Internet Archive)).

    So, illegitimate rape is a real phenomenon.

    There are two senses being attached to the concept of ‘illegitimate rape’ here, I think.

    1. Rape followed by a pregnancy.
    2. False rape – the ‘victim’ lying about the rape.

    Which sense is Akin using? Evan McMorris-Santoro’s article doesn’t support 1. He says, “Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri who is running against Sen. Claire McCaskill, justified his opposition to abortion rights even in case of rape with a claim that victims of “legitimate rape” have unnamed biological defenses that prevent pregnancy.”

    Well, to me, this says that ‘legitimate rape’ (a rape that really happened) probably won’t lead to pregnancy because of said biological defenses. But this is compatible with a woman getting pregnant or not! Thus, 1 is just false. Peitzman puts things in context when he notes that, “What Akin’s saying is that you can’t get pregnant from a rape that didn’t actually occur, which is a point even our dullest minds have already grasped.”

    So, when you ask, ‘What could possibly cause a man (sigh) to say that “legitimate rape” does not lead to pregnancy?’, this seems to me misleading. He said it probably won’t lead to pregnancy because of biological defenses. But as I’ve shown, the context of Akin’s remarks would have us conclude that ‘legitimate rape’ is the only kind of rape that could lead to a pregnancy, for a ‘legitimate rape’ is the rape that really happened!

    And it is far from clear why you say this: “His latest statement arguing that women lie about being raped, makes this crystal clear.” How? Why? Are you really prepared to say Akin is saying that ALL women lie about being rape?

    And I am clueless as to why you’d write this: “Having grown up in the pro-life movement, I can assure you that telling someone that they hate women only solidifies their previously held beliefs, further insulating them from ever having to confront the consequences of those beliefs.”

    What does this mean? What can it mean? Are you saying Akin hates women? Or, we can’t say that he does, because that’ll insulate him even more? I mean, this sentence is fantastic to me. I’m mystified too, because when Akin clarified what he meant by ‘legitimate rape’, this somehow is a mysterious proof that it is ‘crystal clear’ that he wants the definition of rape to be determined by men? What?! I cannot follow this argument at all, man. I’m sorry, lol. If there are hidden connections, please draw them out for me.

    The icing on the cake is that Adam Kotsko quote which you’re obviously applying to Akin. I, again, utterly fail to see how what Akin said and this quote have even a semblance of relevance. The sequence of events seems to be this:

    1. Legitimate rapes probably don’t lead to pregnancies because of biological defenses.
    2. What!?!? The rapes that lead to pregnancies aren’t legitimate?
    3. No, they have to legitimate (in Akin’s sense), because legitimate rapes are the only kind of rapes that can lead to pregnancies (since legitimate rapes are rapes that really happened). But those cases are rare (statistically inaccurate, admittedly), because of a woman’s biological defenses.
    4. But that just makes it ‘crystal clear’ that Akin is using shame as a power grab so that men define the parameters of what makes a genuine rape. It’s in the conservative playbook for reinforcing existing power structures.
    5. Huh? For some reason, I imagine Mel Gibson’s character in the movie Conspiracy Theory saying that.

    Help! lol

  • The fact that you are worried about the bullshit notion of “false rape accusations” is frankly disturbing to me. Go read some feminist literature on rape culture and some first hand accounts of women who have been raped. I will not debate the face value rationality of Akin’s remarks.

  • Whoa! Wait a minute, dude. And I say this with all due respect. I don’t think I like the tone of your post there. The only reason I brought up the notion of false rape accusations is because Akin did in clarifying what he meant by illegitimate rape. Why the hell is that disturbing? I don’t see how I need to read feminist literature on rape culture to find out how a person wanted to use the words ‘illegitimate rape’. And another thing:

    If the woman was indeed raped, then (no shit!) it’s not illegitimate, according to Akin’s usage of the notion.

    So, raw statistics are bullshit? How can you say this and not interact with the content of what I carefully spelled out to you? I did that because I considered you a worthy person to dialogue with. I gave you some statistics that ‘false rape accusations’ are a real phenomenon. The statistics were relevant because you said, “His latest statement arguing that women lie about being raped, makes this crystal clear.” (the idea that it’s all about power), which I thought didn’t make sense.

    And the reason why I’m debating the face value rationality of what Akin is saying is because I have yet to be provided with a good reason for why I should go any deeper. Your out-of-left-field conspiracy that Akin is a part of a conservative plot to reinforce existing power structures seems so far fetched as to be a borderline illusion.

    The fact that you are ‘disturbed’ is a little annoying, being that I’ve made every effort to keep the discussion on the level of logical analysis of your post. So, after a plea to connect the dots for me, I guess it’s all going to boil down to your emotional reactions and hurling the elephants of requesting that I read a vast literature on a topic, none of which really touch on any of the points I elucidated.

    I’m sorry, but you seem too emotionally caught up in what I think you ‘want’ to be the case that it keeps of rationally discussing the issues. Oh well.

  • I’m not going to apologize for being disturbed by the defense of rapists. And I don’t aspire to cool headed dialogue on issues of oppression.

  • A defense of rapists? What on earth are you talking about? And I DO NOT appreciate this insidious attack on my character, AT ALL. You don’t know me. If you apologize about anything, I deserve an apology on that score.

    Is it a defense of rapist when the article mentioned Akin’s comments here:

    “Let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something,” Akin said. “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

    And not aspiring to cool headed dialogue is exactly what’s wrong with your approach. You seem skip rationally ordering your thoughts so there would be substance behind your moral outrage. I’m all for moral outrage! But it’s got to be backed up by good reasons, none of which you’ve been able to provide for me.

  • In case anyone is interested, here is the link to an excellent essay by Judith Jarvis Thomson that seems relevant to the original post:,Fall02/thomson.htm

  • I too disagree with the slippery slope argument. If one thinks the fetus becomes a person at a certain point, the line drawn does seem arbitrary. I disagree with the acorn-analogy, because I don’t think a fetus is a potential human person, as an acorn is a potential tree. I believe the term ‘fetus’ is a term of development, much like the terms ‘toddler’, ‘adolescent’, or ‘adult’ are. Thus, to think X is not a human person because X is a fetus would be like saying X is not a human because X is an adult, or an adolescent, which is absurd.

    Also, I’d say the rules governing what constitutes a mammal are different than the rules governing what constitutes plants. Plants begin as a single seed and develop their inherent potential to become the actual plant the laws of its development determine it to be. Mammals, on the other hand, realize their metaphysical constitution upon the union of two groups of seeds. Once the seeds are unified, they are no longer seeds; it becomes the species of mammal it happens to be. Thus, I believe Judith Jarvis Thomson errs when she says, ”

    “A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.”

    I believe that when the cells are ‘clumped’ the way they are, an ontological leap occurs: we go from two groupings of seeds to a mammalian species called ‘human’. And because the complexity of the ‘clump’ is at its most rudimentary, we’re not entitled to say it’s not human, but that the stage of development is that of a fetus, as a opposed to adolescent, or adult, or elderly adult, etc. The acorn differs from the fetus in that there is no ‘clumping’. But Thompson chooses not to pursue this any further.

    Then we have the famous violin-moral-dilemma (VMD), which I think boils down to a battle between moral intuitions. Yes, it would be an awful situation to be kidnapped in the way VMD describes. However, I think it would be morally wrong to surgically separate myself knowing that such an operation would end the violinist’s life. Period. I will say that a morally permissible reason for an abortion – though rare – is if the mother’s life is threatened if the pregnancy is followed through. VMD doesn’t exactly touch on this (it’s designed more to be an analog to the rape-situation), but if the surgery was such that we had to be disconnected from each other, and that such a disconnect was going to kill me, I’d have the right to disconnect before it was too late. In this case, it wouldn’t be a murder (morally unjustified killing), but killing. This would be a moral exemption that applies in a whole bunch of ethical situations: WW2 Germans lying to Nazis about hiding Jews in their cellar, for example. The moral absolute regarding lying is temporarily suspended by the moral absolute regarding the intrinsic value of life. Similarly, I consider the ‘letting the mother die’ principle weightier, and so the ‘direct killing’ principle is temporarily suspended. It’s a simple case in ethical philosophy called moral exemptions. Perhaps in other situations the ‘direct killing’ principle is the more weightier of the two. The property of ‘innocence’ is irrelevant here, since both the mother and the fetus share that property.

    It is true when Thomson says, “If anything in the world is true, it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life.”, but only if your life is in danger, and not if your union with the violinist entails your both surviving, even if it lasts until old age finally takes you.

    Personally, I don’t see any difficulties with a third party to be morally obligated to follow the moral absolutes the same way a mother could.

    In the case of Henry Fonda’s cool hand, I would say your right to life isn’t obligated, but if it isn’t carried out, Henry Fonda isn’t blameworthy; but if it is carried out, it is morally praiseworthy. This would just be a case of a supererogatory act, like the Marine who jumps on a grenade to save his comrades: not obligated, but praiseworthy. But not aborting a baby when the mother’s life is not in danger isn’t supererogatory, it’s obligated. Similarly, that the violinist’s life shouldn’t be terminated isn’t supererogatory, it’s obligated, if your life isn’t in danger. There isn’t a weightier moral principle around that could suspend, and therefore exempt, the principle of ‘right to life’ that I can see. The right to life is the trump card in all those cases where it is obligated, not supererogatory.

    The rest of the article seems to be to bring up examples that don’t take this distinction to heart, a distinction that applies to the Good Samaritan Parable she gives.

    Thomson resorts to just assertion when she writes, “The emendation which may be made at this point is this: the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly. This runs a risk of circularity, but never mind: it would enable us to square the fact that the violinist has a right to life with the fact that you do not act unjustly toward him in unplugging yourself, thereby killing him. For if you do not kill him unjustly, you do not violate his right to life, and so it is no wonder you do him no injustice. ”

    I can’t see how it would be just to unplug yourself from the violinist if your life is not in danger. All moral principles that would obligate or permit you to do that are suspended/exempted by the weightier principle of ‘right to life’.

    Also confusing is Thomson saying, “So my own view is that even though you ought to let the violinist use your kidneys for the one hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so–we should say that if you refuse, you are, like the boy who owns all the chocolates and will give none away, self-centered and callous, indecent in fact, but not unjust.”

    The ‘right’ implies the ‘ought’. If X has a ‘right’, then – other things being equal – Y ought to treat X in the way the ‘right’ specifies. So, I don’t follow Thomson’s ‘right vs. ought’ distinction.

    I also disagree with Thomson’s notion of a parent ‘giving’ a child his/her rights. Rights are God-given, intrinsic to the person, not contingent upon the parents’ giving such rights.

  • Seriously. Go away.

  • lol, you’re one strange dude. Peace out.

  • You know, I have been thinking about this whole interchange and I just wanted to say that I wanted to personally apologize about how this all turned out. I hope you’ll find it within yourself to forgive me. I got kind of immature near the end by losing my temper and all. I hope we as Christian brothers can get along in the future. The last thing I want is for there to be a rift between us. I was reading your blogs and you seem to have a really bright mind. The last thing I want is for me to be cut off from your perspective. As far as what I was trying to argue, I hope you’ll see I was just trying to clarify something that my mind couldn’t make sense of; but please interpret that I someone who doesn’t have a clue, and not someone who was purposely trying to stir controversy. The unfortunate thing about posting is that I have a hard time noticing how my writing style might give the impression of dogmatism or just plain old impersonal ratiocination. I’m sure you’re a good, intelligent, cool guy and we’d get along if we met in real life. I just didn’t want to leave a bad taste in your mouth. It might be too late, but just wanted to get this out there. If for some reason you still think I’m annoying, I really do wish you the best.

    Love ya, bro!

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