It’s code red as Republicans try to distance themselves from Representative Todd Akin’s recent startlingly inaccurate biology lesson. Claiming that victims of what he called “legitimate” rape could somehow “shut down” the process of conception, Akin, who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has since tried to dismiss his remarks as boorish, one-off musings. (He meant to say “forcible rape,” not “legitimate rape.”) Obama issued an unequivocal statement: “Rape is rape.” Meanwhile, a Mitt Romney–Paul Ryan spokeswoman quickly clarified that their Administration would permit abortions in cases of rape.
But the story doesn’t end with a bizarre, unscientific comment about how reproduction works. This embarrassing episode is only the latest in a long string of Republican rape canards that present a binary view of female sexuality in which some women are deemed worthy of legislative sympathy while others are not.
The ignorance is reaching a new crescendo, but it goes back decades. We heard from periodontist turned lawmaker Henry Aldridge that women who are “truly raped” can’t become pregnant because the “juices don’t flow.” Others, including a federal judge, have called pregnancy from rape as likely as “snow in Miami” and “1 in millions in millions,” while some have embraced specious claims about the effect of emotional trauma on conception from (so-called) “assaultive rape” and other science-bending notions. Former state representative Stephen Freind once opined that raped women “secrete a certain secretion” to prevent conception. (If such a thing existed, surely the pharmaceutical industry would like to hear about it.)
More recently, vice-presidential candidate Ryan drew fire for language in the co-sponsored No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act that initially distinguished between “forcible rape” and statutory rape of minors or nonviolent rapes that could affect mentally impaired, retarded or drugged women.
The victim blaming harkens back to the days when it was accepted wisdom that “good” women were incapable of being raped and some people thought conception could only occur if a woman achieved orgasm. It’s not a great distance from such obtuseness to practices in countries like Pakistan, where marital rape is not recognized legally and women are treated as criminals, not victims, unless they can produce multiple male witnesses to their rape.
Experts calculate that pregnancy results from about 5% of rapes, in part because women are fertile for several days each month and rape is committed disproportionately (vastly so) against very young women at the peak of fecundity. One study even found troubling evidence that pregnancy rates were higher — not lower! — in cases of rape than consensual sex, even after controlling for differences in use of birth control. The authors theorize that fertile women in consensual relationships can decline sex when they are ovulating whereas rape victims don’t have a choice.
But it’s a mistake to get mired in pregnancy rates. The problem is in trying to police the kind of pregnancy trauma that merits the right to an abortion. Incest is culturally noxious, of course, but is it always worse than other traumatic conception stories? And just how much incest are we willing to tolerate, anyway, before making abortion an exception? Incest between siblings? Parent and adult child? Second cousins? Are we really certain that a 13-year-old girl who has sex with a 35-year-old neighbor is in less need of an abortion exception than an “assaultive” rape victim (whatever that means)? What about a couple with Down syndrome whose parents forgot to explain birth control? Or a schizophrenic patient who was found in bed with a hospital employee? What about a woman facing financial catastrophe or crushing depression?
There will always be nuance and ambiguity as far as pregnancy is concerned. That’s why many Americans have long preferred to stay out of first-trimester-abortion decisions, leaving them to a woman and her doctor, partner and conscience. People on all sides of the abortion debate should instead unite to prevent as many abortions as possible through comprehensive sex education; better access to family planning; improved support for adoption; and greater compassion for living, breathing parents and not only their unborn children. To this list, we might also add better science education for legislators.