Is Todd Akin as Stupid as They Say?

by Jay Johansen
Pregnant Pause Home Politics Search this site

(Aug 25, 2012) Apparently there's one thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on: Todd Akin is an idiot.

Mr Akin is a Congressman from Missouri who, as I write this article, is running for Senate. In an interview, he was asked about his position on abortion. After he said that he believed abortion was acceptable when necessary to save the life of the mother, the interviewer asked about pregnancies resulting from rape. Akin replied:

It seems to me, first of all, 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.

Mr Akin was promptly attacked for these remarks. Not only did his Democratic opponents attack him, but fellow Republicans joined in. Democrats said he was evil. Republicans said he was stupid. They urged him to drop out of the race so he could be replaced by an alternative candidate. Conservative commentators ridiculed him. His party's standard-bearer, Mr Romney, joined in calling for him to step aside. The National Republican Senatorial Committee withdraw their support and funding. Some Republicans even talked of running another Republican against him as a write-in candidate.

This incident is interesting in two regards: One, Mr Akin's remarks themselves and the cricisim of them; and Two, the politics of the Republican Party.

The Criticism

Criticism of Mr Akins remarks boiled down to three points:

1. There is no such thing as a "legitimate rape". Rape is a terrible crime, and it is highly offensive to call any rape "legitimate".

2. The female body does not have any magic way to prevent rape from resulting in pregnancy. This comment demonstrates incredible ignorance of elementary biology.

3. Mr Akin seeks to make abortion illegal, even in extreme cases like rape. This is an assault on woman's rights.

Let's look at each of these criticisms.

"Legitimate Rape"

According to my dictionary, definition 1 for "legitimate" is "Being in compliance with the law; lawful". This is clearly not the meaning that Mr Akin had in mind. Rape is a crime; no rape can be "legitimate" in that sense. But another definition is "Authentic; genuine". This is obviously what Mr Akin meant: He was distinguishing an actual rape from a false accusation. In context, it appears that Mr Akin was contrasting a true, forcible rape from other sorts of incidents. And -- my words here, not his -- he appears to have been thinking of, for example, a woman having consensual sex and then later regretting it and accusing the man of rape.

Some objected that the phrase "legitimate rape" indicates that Mr Akin believes that some rapes are okay. But this criticism comes from deliberately mis-interpreting Mr Akin's words. He didn't mean "legitimate" in the sense of "acceptable". Exactly the opposite, in fact. By "legitimate rape" he meant an action that is clearly and unequivocally a crime.

If Mr Akin had talked about a "legitimate robbery", as opposed to a false report for, say, insurance fraud, would we have seen this firestorm? Oh, some might have noted the "lawful" definition of "legitimate" and commented on the incongruous combination of words that could be taken to mean "lawful crime". But this is the sort of peculiarity of the English language that is often a source for jokes. It is not the subject of serious political debate.

In my humble opinion, this criticism of Mr Akin is simply dumb.

Others attacked him from the opposite direction. They fully recognized what he meant by "legitimate" here. And, they said, rape is so terrible that we dare not talk about false accusations lest we trivialize the crime. Talking about false reports may lead people to question a woman's claim to have been raped. And if a woman is raped and then people don't believe her, that would be an awful thing.

But it is surely just as awful if a man is falsely accused of rape and no one believes his claims of innocence. The idea that because a crime is terrible, therefore we should rush to condemn anyone accused of that crime without bothering to look at evidence, is itself highly offensive.

Pregnancy Unlikely

Critics were all over Mr Akin for saying that a woman is unlikely to become pregnant from rape. Commentator after commentator blasted this idea as ridiculous, stupid, absurd, etc. Numerous commentators, from the left and the right, moaned about Akin's total ignorance of basic science.

And yet ... Mr Akin was apparently referring to the theory that stress interferes with a woman's fertility, and of course rape is a highly stressful event, to put it mildly. Thus, the stress might prevent her from becoming pregnant.

Is this theory valid? I don't know. I'm not aware of any research to confirm or refute it. The idea that stress interferes with fertility is hardly some way-out idea. I did a Google search on "infertility and stress" and it returned 2,880,000 hits. For example, an article in "Medical News Today" begins:

University of California, Berkeley, researchers have found what they think is a critical and, until now, missing piece of the puzzle about how stress causes sexual dysfunction and infertility.

"Stress Puts Double Whammy On Reproductive System, Fertility"
Medical News Today, 16 Aug 2009

There are literally millions of articles on the Internet discussing how stress causes infertility. Feel free to look a few up for yourself. Of course most of these talk about stress in general, not rape specifically. Would the trauma of rape make a woman unlikely to conceive? Maybe not. Maybe whatever the effect of stress is on fertility does not "apply" in cases of rape.

But exactly why is the idea so ridiculous? Until Mr Akin made his remarks, the idea that stress causes infertility was accepted fact. Suddenly it became, not just false, but so absurd that anyone who would say such a thing instantly identifies himself as a moron.

(Side note: When I did the Google search on "infertility and stress", the first three that I clicked on gave me "404 - not found" errors. They're clearly there in Google. They were apparently availble a few days ago. But suddenly these pages were taken down. Did these web sites remove articles on stress and infertility to avoid giving any support to Mr Akin, or is it just a coincindence?)

Many stories reported that Akin said that if a woman got pregnant, it must have been consensual. For example:

... the Congressman seemed to suggest, a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant by rape depends on her intent. If she truly does not want to have intercourse, her body would “shut down” a pregnancy. And, by logical extension, if she gets pregnant, then she must not have been raped.

"‘Legitimate Rape’? Todd Akin and Other Politicians Who Confused Science"
Time Healthland

Except ... except Mr Akin didn't say that pregnancy from rape was impossible; he said it was "really rare". His very next sentence was, "But let's assume that maybe that didn't work", and he goes on to discuss pregnant rape victims.

Several articles on Mr Akin quoted a study saying that 32,000 women become pregnant from rape every year. I don't have the details on this study, but the number surely does not mean what these reports imply. According to the FBI, there were 84,767 forcible rapes in the United States in 2010 (the latest year for which statistics are available). ("Crime in the United States, Table 1". Did 85,000 rapes really result in 32,000 pregnancies? What, over 1 in 3 rapes results in pregnancy? If Mr Akin's statement sounds implausible, this truly strains credulity. Maybe you could come up with such a large number if you include a lot of hazy cases as "rape": woman who say they were pressured, they were drunk, they changed their minds, etc. (That is, all those "non-legitimate rapes".)

Abortion for Rape

This is really the crux of the matter. The real opposition to Mr Akin is because he says that rape does not justify abortion.

If a pro-abortion politician had referred to "legitimate rape", it would have been laughed off as an odd choice of words. If a pro-abortion organizaton had said that rape rarely results in pregnancy, it wouldn't have brought any comment. (Back in 1988 the Guttmacher Institute, a strongly pro-abortion organization, published a study in which they said that less than 1% of women who seek abortions report that they were raped. See, "Why Women Have Abortions", No one noticed.)

Mr Akin said that in cases of rape, "I think there should be punishment but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child."

What do you think the penalty for rape should be? I think most would support long prison terms. I bet plenty would support beatings, castration, and all sorts of harsh punishments. Many call for the death penalty. But the death penalty for whom? The rapist? Or for his innocent baby? For what other crime do we punish the child for the crime of his father?

The Republican Response

It is, of course, not surprising that the Democrats would leap on any statement a Republican makes that they can use against him. That's the nature of politics. What's most baffling to me is the Republican response to Mr Akin.

If other Republicans believed that Mr Akin's remarks hurt his chances of winning the election, it would make sense for them to approach him quietly, behind the scenes, and encourage him to drop out of the race. But they knew, or could easily have found out by asking him, that he was not willing to drop out. Under those circumstances, what could public criticism and public calls for him to quit accomplish? The only possible effect would be to hurt Mr Akin's chances of winning the election. Many political analysts belive that this election will result in a very closely-divided Senate. One more Senator from either party could tip the balance. Under those circumstances, you would think the Republicans would be doing all they could to help every possible candidate.

If the Republicans had all rallied around Mr Akin, if they had defended him, accused the Democrats of trying to blow a slip of the tongue out of proportion, said that the Democrats were just trying to distract the voters from Mr Obama's poor record on the economy, etc, etc, it's quite possible that they could have neutralized any damage, maybe even turned it into a plus. If the Republicans had just ignored it and changed the subject, it's not unlikely that it would have blown over in a few days when the next scandal or crisis came along. (Think about the hot political debate of a month or two ago. How hot is it now?) If they had really backed him up and said that, yes indeed, an important difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans are pro-life and Democrats are pro-abortion, they could have bolstered the Republican's position among social conservaties.

How does the Republican Party gain by attacking Mr Akin? Before this, Mr Obama was clearly pro-choice and Mr Romney was vaguely pro-life. So by repudiating Akin, Romney distances himself from the most extreme pro-lifers. How, exactly, does this help him? Before this, a voter who is pro-choice and for whom this is a major issue was going to vote for Obama, because Obama was clearly on his side. And now ... what? Because Mr Romney has made himself a little less pro-life, is the pro-choice voter going to vote for him? Why would he? Obama is still clearly the pro-choice candidate.

Some Republicans are even calling for some other Republican to run against Akin as an independent candidate. There's a briliant political strategy: let's divide the Republican vote.

It seems the only thing that the Republican Party higher-ups dislike more than the Democrats is a social-conservative Republican. They'd rather lose an election than have one of those folks represent their party.

Transcript of Interview of Todd Akin (R-Mo) by Charles Jaco

Jaco: On abortion, you’ve been pro-life your entire career.
Akin: Yeah.
Jaco: You’ve been very staunchly pro-life. Are there any circumstances in your mind in which abortion should be legal?
Akin: Well, I think that sometimes people talk about life of the mother as a situation, Charles. And in my sense, one of the foundational things America is built on is a respect for life. So I would say you optimize life.

So, for instance, a woman has a tubal pregnancy or something. Well, technically by my understanding life begins at conception, so you technically had conception. But the child doesn’t have a chance and will soon kill a mother, okay? So I would say in those kinds of situations, you try to optimize life.

But, you know, my case in this, Charles, has been even if you sort of separate a little the whole abortion question out, one of the things I love about this country is the fact that Americans do consider life really important.

And it’s not because of some theoretical thing – you’re on a talk show and somebody asks you about it – but you have Sept. 11 and you’ve got these guys that are running into a building that’s about to collapse. They find somebody in a wheelchair. They never checked their ID or anything like that or whether they’re important. They grab them and get them to safety, and they run back and get another one.

Same kind of thing that we saw – Ollie North has some footage. You know, he’s been right there in the front with cameras taking footage. This is over in Iraq. And there’s a Marine – a big guy, and he’s got this guy who’s wounded over his shoulder and he’s running. The bullets are flying around. And there is a cameraman in a safe position saying, ‘Hey, that guy’ – and the guy’s fatigues are just up and you can see that this is an Iraqi citizen. This isn’t the U.S. soldier. Says, ‘Hey, that’s an Iraqi citizen. Why are you risking your life there?’ This Marine turns around and he looks straight into that guy’s camera and he said, ‘Because that’s what we do.’

And that spirit of America, I think, is so important for us to protect that idea of the importance of all of us.

Jaco: Okay, so if an abortion can be considered in the case of, say, tubal pregnancy or something like that, what about in the case of rape? Should it be legal or not?
Akin: Well, you know, uh, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, ‘Well, how do you – how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question.’

It seems to me, first of all, 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. You know, I think there should be punishment but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

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