Akin speaks for them all

August 23, 2012

Missouri Republican Todd Akin is getting a lot of heat for his comments about "legitimate rape," but how many of his ideas echo the Republican agenda? Rachel Cohen explains.

THE DELUDED and deranged fantasy world of the woman-hating, anti-choice right filled front page headlines this week, thanks to the comments of Missouri Republican Todd Akin.

Asked during an interview on August 19 whether he thinks abortion should be legal in cases of rape, Akin explained, "That's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

To be clear, Akin wasn't referring to the ability of sexual assault survivors to access Plan B contraception. He supports banning the "morning-after pill" without exceptions for cases of rape or incest. In fact, in the interview Akin goes on to say that in the "rare," hypothetical event of a pregnancy resulting from rape, he thinks "there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist," not the zygote, since for Akin, even "legitimate rape" does not justify abortion.

Akin's comments attracted a flood of condemnation, including from the leadership of the Republican Party. The Republican National Convention officially dropped support and funding for Akin. And Paul Ryan, the anti-choice zealot Mitt Romney chose as a running mate in order to appeal to the most conservative elements of the party's base, was reportedly tasked with calling Akin and begging him to drop out of the race.

Todd Akin
Todd Akin

These appeals came just days before a Missouri state deadline, after which the party cannot enter a new candidate. But Akin, in his own words, is "not a quitter." After issuing a few weak apologies for having "misspoke" and "used the wrong words in the wrong way," Akin pledged to remain in the race even as the deadline for his party to replace him passed.

And why not hang in there? After all, Akin's views may seem extreme to most people--for instance, anyone familiar with where babies come from--but the very words and phrases Akin sputtered in fact reflect the policies and agenda at the heart of the Republican Party establishment.

AKIN ISN'T the only prominent Republican to publicly back the long-standing right-wing claim that rape does not result in pregnancy. Over the decades, representatives Stephen Freind from Pennsylvania and Henry Aldridge from North Carolina have respectively claimed either that women "secrete a certain secretion" or dry up so "the juices don't flow," in the course of rape, making pregnancy less likely.

Mike Huckabee, considered a credible candidate for president of the United States as recently as 2008, welcomed Akin onto his radio talk show in the midst of the controversy to offer Akin a chance to acknowledge that these claims defy logic, science and real life.

The fact is that that "rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency," producing an estimated "32,101 pregnancies from rape each year," according to a 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The two bigots used the time on air to celebrate the "extraordinary" human beings born to women whose pregnancies were caused by rape.

The Republican presidential campaign released a statement the morning after Akin's comments, claiming that a Romney-Ryan administration wouldn't oppose abortion in cases of rape--a promise that comes as a surprise to those who remember last year's House Bill 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion" bill.

Akin and Ryan were two of the original cosponsors of the bill that sought to restrict Medicaid funding of abortions only to cases in which the pregnancy was the result of "forcible rape."

In other words, in order for a survivor of rape to prove that her rape was "legitimate" or "forcible," she must prove that the sexual violence she endured was sufficiently brutal to earn her the right to exercise control over her own reproductive life.

This barbaric logic ignores the reality that rape is always a forcible violation of the bodily autonomy to which everyone has a legitimate right. It is an idea that threatens to deny many sexual assault survivors the right to bodily autonomy a second time by restricting their right to abortion.

Just this week, the GOP's platform committee approved a plank opposing abortion in all cases, without exception in cases of rape, incest or immediate risk to a woman's life. This means that, as in 2004 and 2008, the Republican National Convention in 2012 will officially endorse the position that women should be allowed to die rather than be allowed to control their own reproductive lives.

IF REPUBLICANS' attempts to distance themselves from Akin's woman-hating remarks ring hollow, the efforts of Democrats to make political hay of the controversy also appear to be deeply cynical.

At the time of the interview in which he made his comments, Akin was eight points aheadof Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill. McCaskill leapt into action by tweeting that she was "stunned."

But as Katie J. M. Baker argued in an article for the website Jezebel,

Let's be angry about what Akin said--really, really angry--but we shouldn't necessarily be shocked. Akin once voted for an anti-marital-rape law only after questioning whether it might be used "in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband."

Akin's record should especially be familiar to McCaskill, considering that her own campaign shelled out an incredible $2 million on ads promoting Akin as the "true conservative" candidate during Republican primary earlier this month, in an effort to tacitly boost Akin's chances of winning--because McCaskill considered him to be the weakest Republican for her to face in the general election. Despite this, McCaskill was still lagging behind Akin, until this recent scandal.

This is a dramatic example of the strategy Democrats are employing throughout state and presidential elections: banking on the abject backwardness of Republicans to excuse their own failure to stand for women's rights. But the existence of a debate over whether or not rape survivors have a right to abortion is a predictable outcome of decades of bipartisan attacks chipping away at the circumstances under which abortion may be accessed.

As Socialist Worker pointed out in a recent editorial,

At best, the Democrats opposed the most extreme anti-abortion measures the right came up with. At worst, they gave up more ideological ground to the right--and actually promoted less extreme restrictions--but restrictions nonetheless--on the right to choose as the 'realistic' option...

The Democrats aren't stopping women's rights from being taken away. In fact, they've played a role in making those attacks possible--with their eager compromises with the right that have shifted the entire debate about abortion further and further to the right.

AT AN impromptu press conference the day after Akin's comments, Barack Obama said, "Rape is rape, and the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn't make sense to the American people and certainly doesn't make sense to me."

In this climate, Obama's acknowledgment that rape is rape can seem refreshing. But the disgusting sexist logic that suggests some kinds of rape are more valid than others also underlies the concept that Democrats, including Obama, regularly endorse--that some circumstances make abortion more "legitimate" than others.

Ultimately, efforts to distinguish between "acceptable" forms of rape and "acceptable" reasons for abortion, both stand to deny women the autonomy to make basic decisions about our own lives for ourselves.

And many rape survivors are already paying a horrible price. With every congressional budget, politicians on both side of the isle re-approve the Hyde Amendment blocking federal funding for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, or immediate danger to a woman's life.

Even without the passage of HB 3 to officially limit Medicaid coverage to survivors of "forcible rape," statistics show out how these restrictions in practice deny rape survivors coverage for abortion. In 2005, Stephanie Poggi of the National Network of Abortion Funds reported,

At least 9,100 abortions each year are attributed to pregnancies that occur because of forced sexual intercourse, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Yet, the vast majority of states that only cover abortion under the narrow exceptions report zero payments in any given year. In fiscal year 2001, the most recent year for which we have statistics, the number of abortions paid for by both federal and state Medicaid under the narrow exceptions totaled 81.

Without the ability to decide when and whether to have sex, to become pregnant, or to carry a pregnancy to term, women cannot live as fully equal participants in our world.

No survivor of sexual assault should ever have to prove their rape was "legitimate." No woman should have to justify or apologize for terminating an unwanted pregnancy. And none of us should stand by and watch our rights get traded away as a bargaining chip by politicians of either party.

The real controversy isn't a matter of rhetoric. The imposition of limitations on what's considered "legitimate" rape and "legitimate" reproductive rights have very real, devastating consequences for women's actual lives. Any politician who wants to condemn what Akin says should prove in practice that they're willing to stand for women's rights.

These politicians have nothing to say about the refusal of law enforcement and the justice system to take violence against women seriously--even as an estimated 500,000 untested rape kits are stockpiled in police stations and crime labs nationwide.

And when will they insist on adequate funding for Planned Parenthood, for rape crisis services, and for sex education that not only provides knowledge about contraception but also encourages people to expect nothing less than enthusiastic consent in their sexual relationships?

In all the electoral noise over Todd Akin this week, politicians have been remarkably silent in promising any positive steps toward improving women's lives. So we have to draw the lesson that the only way to defend abortion and stand up to rape and sexual assault in all its forms is to raise an unapologetic movement for women's rights that relies on our power in the streets, on our campuses and at our workplaces--not at the ballot box.

Further Reading

From the archives