Todd Akin’s remarks on rape may help clarify the abortion debate

Like any sentient person, I was appalled by Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape.” I was shocked by the Limbaugh-ian proportions of his ignorance about the female reproductive system (“in cases of legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”) and remain flabbergasted that he hasn’t caved in to party pressure to quit his Senate campaign.

But unlike the many people proclaiming their outrage on Facebook and Twitter, I’m actually grateful to Akin. And not, as many liberals have sneeringly gloated, because he has effectively dug his entire party into a hole that it might need a NASA-built escape capsule to get out of.

I’m grateful to Akin because he has forced those who feel strongly about abortion to face the truth: When it comes to abortion, you’re either in or you’re out. For all the talk about exceptions for rape and incest, for all the hand-wringing about what constitutes “legitimate” sexual violence and whether pregnancy can result from rape, the real issue has nothing to do with rape. The real issue is whether abortion should be legal or illegal.

It’s that simple. Guys like Akin know this. The sponsors of the so-called Human Life Amendment, the strict antiabortion platform that calls for no exceptions and was approved Tuesday by the National Republican Convention’s platform committee, know this. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan know this too. But because they face the daunting task of winning swing votes, they’re forced to talk about things like rape and incest and threats to the life of the mother, thereby changing the subject and twisting themselves into semantic knots that get them mocked on Twitter.

It’s hard to resist the impulse to ridicule the contorted reasoning that hard-core pro-lifers have put forth to explain why exceptions to an abortion ban aren’t necessary. Garance Franke-Ruta writing on the Atlantic Wire this week called out a 1999 article by John C. Willke, a physician and former president of the National Right to Life Committee, which may have “informed” Akin’s thinking. Writing in “Life Issues Connector,” Willke makes a point of distinguishing “forcible rape” or “assault rape” from statutory rape and then embarks on an elaborate mathematical calculation purporting to prove the unlikelihood of pregnancy resulting from rape (women are only fertile three days a month,15% of men are sterile, and so on.) Perhaps most astonishingly, he also tells us “there are approximately 100,000,000 females old enough to be at risk for rape in the United States.”


Cue the indignation from pro-choicers everywhere. Does Willke truly not realize that there’s no such thing as being “old enough to be at risk for rape”? Does his definition of “forcible” include the psychological force exerted upon children for whom the words “don’t tell” are as binding as any form of physical restraint?

Fair questions, but in the end, they don’t really matter. That’s because the very fact that it’s possible to argue about what constitutes rape means that any attempt to afford special privileges to its victims is, simply, intellectually dishonest. If you believe abortion is tantamount to murder, the only logical position is to oppose it without exception; rape, incest, life of the mother be damned (though in the latter case, perhaps abortion could theoretically be justified as an act of self-defense). If you believe in a woman’s right to choose, the only logical position is that abortion should be available to anyone for any reason at any time — including unpopular reasons like disappointment with the fetus’ gender.

It’s not a pretty picture, nor is it a dispute that is likely to be resolved any time soon. And that’s why both parties have pretended for so long that the abortion debate is about rape, which at least everyone agrees is horrible. But Akin’s remarks — and the fact that the Republican Party responded by reaffirming its support for an unconditional abortion ban — means that it’s time to stop pretending. It’s time for moderate conservatives like Romney to stop equivocating and choose a side. It’s time for liberals to stop ranting on Facebook about dopey politicians and their dopey views on rape and start unapologetically owning up to what freedom of choice really means.

If we do so forcibly enough, we just might start a legitimate discussion.