Last week, Missouri Republican Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin sparked bipartisan outrage when he opined that women only rarely become pregnant as the result of rape because, “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Democrats gleefully seized on Akin’s comments as reflective of the GOP’s hostility to women, while Republicans—including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan—sought to distance themselves from Akin, even urging him to withdraw from the Senate race. As this column goes to press, however, Akin has resisted the calls to step aside.
Critics took Akin to task for three main reasons: (1) his ignorance of biology; (2) his archaic view of rape; and (3) the extreme nature of his anti-abortion views. In this column, I shall argue that the first criticism is largely beside the point. Akin is a scientific ignoramus, but so are many of his critics. The second two points hit home, however, because they lend support to a view that the pro-life movement has assiduously sought to combat in recent years—namely, that to be pro-life is to be against equality for women.
The Biological Facts
Let us begin with the obvious: Akin’s views about human reproduction, which he subsequently recanted, were false. Human females can and, unfortunately, do, become pregnant as a consequence of rape at roughly the same frequency as they become pregnant as a consequence of consensual sex.
Yet that is a contingent fact about human beings, not a logical necessity. Many commentators criticized or mocked Akin on the ground that he had stated a conceptual absurdity. How, they wanted to know, could a uterus or other human female body part “know” that the inbound sperm had issued from a rapist, rather than a welcome sexual partner?
The answer is that neither the uterus nor any other body part needs to “know” anything. Human biological systems are capable of complex responses to stimuli even when those systems function on autopilot. For example, biologists and others use a figure of speech to describe the human immune response when they say that our immune system “recognizes” dangerous pathogens. The relevant immunological agents are not themselves conscious of the pathogens, of course. What the biologists mean by this figure of speech is, instead, that processes inside the body produce cells and chemicals that have the right properties to bind to, or otherwise neutralize, particular pathogens.
Given that the human immune system has evolved to “recognize” and attack invading microbes, it would not have been impossible for the human reproductive system to have evolved methods of recognizing and thwarting sperm from unwanted sex partners, even without uterine cognition. How do we know? Because we see just such mechanisms in other species.
Ducks are a leading, albeit profoundly weird, example. Male ducks have evolved large, barbed penises, which enable them to mate with unwilling females. But in an evolutionary battle of the sexes, female ducks have evolved labrynthine vaginas, which enable them to direct the sperm of duck rapists into blind alleys and dead ends. Thus, whereas male bedbugs—which also practice traumatic insemination—typically succeed in reproducing by force, male ducks typically fail due to the female ducks’ countermeasures.
Thus, while Representative Akin plainly did not know the facts about human biology, those of his critics who assumed his claim was logically impossible, as opposed to simply inaccurate, were also mistaken. Human females might have turned out like ducks; they just happen not to have.
To be sure, it is disturbing that a scientific ignoramus like Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, but one did not need Akin’s recent comments on human reproduction to have reason to fret about the makeup of that committee. After all, its Chairman, Republican Congressman Ralph Hall of Texas, is a notorious climate-change skeptic.
Reviving an Archaic View of Rape
In any event, Congressman Akin’s scientific ignorance was not the core reason for the controversy. He made his now-infamous remark in response to the question whether he believed that laws forbidding abortion ought to contain an exception for women who become pregnant as a result of rape.
Congressman Akin’s answer implied that the question was unimportant because women only very rarely become pregnant as a result of rape. Moreover, in referring to “legitimate” rape, he implied that many claims of rape are not legitimate. Why not? Akin did not expressly say, but he tacitly invoked two pernicious and outdated views about rape.
To begin, as has been widely noted, Congressman Akin was a co-sponsor with many other pro-life members of Congress—including Romney running mate Paul Ryan—of a bill that, in its original form, would have exempted pregnancies that resulted from rape from a prohibition on government funding for abortion, but only if the rape was “forcible.” That limitation recalls archaic, albeit all-too-recent, laws and judicial opinions that defined rape so narrowly as to preclude criminal conviction unless the victim resisted “to the utmost.”
Representative Akin’s reference to “legitimate” rape also invoked the myth that women routinely make false accusations of rape. This notion was, until very recently, deeply embedded in Anglo-American law. Leading English judge Sir Matthew Hale influentially opined in the Seventeenth Century that rape “is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved . . . .” For centuries, this opinion became a self-fulfilling prophesy, as rape trials provided an occasion to humiliate the complaining witness and for juries to pass judgment on victims, rather than defendants.
Only relatively recently have state and federal officials begun to recognize that the old view of rape relied on improper stereotypes of women. The Violence Against Women Act, (VAWA), passed in 1994, was one important step forward. In addition to providing funding for shelters and public education, it amended the federal law of evidence to make it harder for a rape defendant to, in effect, put the victim on trial.
VAWA was enacted with clear bipartisan support, reflecting the fact that by the 1990s, nearly all mainstream politicians had come to understand that the law’s traditional skepticism of women who made rape accusations was simply sexist. Representative Akin’s comment raises the question whether today’s conservatives have softened in their commitment to women’s equality.
Is the Pro-Life Movement Anti-Woman?
Representative Akin’s comments can be, should be, and have been, widely condemned for what they say about how some influential people still think about rape. But thankfully, the progress we as a society have made in our attitudes towards sexual violence is unlikely to be reversed. Thus, the real significance of Representative Akin’s comments may lie in their implications for the debate over abortion.
In the 1960s and 1970s, women’s rights groups fought for a right to legal abortion as part of a broader platform of liberating women from male control over their lives. And for a time, the public debate around abortion accepted the framing of the issue as pitting the interests of women against the interests of fetuses.
In recent years, however, the pro-life movement has sought to repackage its message as not only pro-fetus, but also as pro-woman. Both political rhetoric and legal regulation now cast abortion restrictions as protecting the interests of women from abortion.
For example, groups like Feminists for Life (FFL) support some measures that clearly are consistent with sex equality, thereby seeking to combat the view that pro-life equals anti-woman. As my Cornell Law School colleague and fellow Verdict columnist Sherry Colb has explained, FFL deserves some credit for showing that a commitment to fetal rights need not be driven by misogyny, even as some of the group’s views fall short of embracing full equality for women.
In another move that appears to counter the apparent impression of an inevitable conflict between fetal rights and women’s rights, the pro-life movement has promoted the notion of “abortion regret syndrome.” Pro-life legislators thus seek to justify abortion restrictions as protecting women from having abortions that they will later regret.
The pro-life movement’s campaign to portray its goals as pro-woman has been fairly successful—remarkably so, when one notes the absence of any real evidence that women who have abortions are more likely to regret that decision than women who carry their pregnancies to term are likely to regret those decisions. Yet, as I noted in last week’s column, the Supreme Court and a federal appeals court have upheld federal and state laws, respectively, based on the mere speculation that women suffer psychological harm from abortion.
Representative Akin’s comments threaten to undo the success that the pro-life movement has achieved in persuading the public that fetal rights can coincide with women’s equality. Of course, if Akin were simply one marginal crank, his views could be dismissed as an aberration. But tellingly, his most offensive position—distinguishing between “legitimate rape” and other rape—dovetails all too smoothly with the efforts of pro-life members of Congress to distinguish between “forcible” rape and other rape.
In the end, of course, what matters is not so much whether the pro-life movement appears sympathetic or hostile to women’s equality more broadly, but whether it in fact promotes or impedes women’s equality.
We can safely assume that in 2012, few Americans who consider themselves pro-life consciously understand their motives as being rooted in sexism. But putting aside internal mental states, there is clear evidence—documented by journalist Michelle Goldberg in her book The Means of Reproduction – that a congeries of policies promoted by the American pro-life movement have, in fact, undermined women’s equality throughout the world.
The pro-life position may not be inherently inconsistent with women’s equality. It just happens to work out that way in contemporary American politics. In calling attention to that fact, Representative Akin has done enormous harm to the pro-life cause he so ardently supports.