The hot story in U.S. politics this week is a Republican Senate nominee’s folk belief, expressed in a television interview, that women rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape”. Missouri Congressman Todd Akin told a TV interviewer:
First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
Akin’s use of the phrase “legitimate rape” is attracting a lot of catcalls; maybe he ought to have used Whoopi Goldberg’s famous formulation “rape rape” in order to be better understood. The funny thing is, if Akin meant “violent rape” when he referred to the “legitimate” kind, his weird legend is probably slightly higher on the ostensive believability scale than, say, “Organically grown vegetables are better for the environment”. It’s quite demonstrable that plenty of mammals undergo spontaneous abortion under stress; when it comes to sheep, rabbits, and rodents, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” is a 100% accurate statement.
Unfortunately for Akin, we belong to none of those species, and the evidence from medicine says that thousands upon thousands of human pregnancies result from rape. I don’t advise you to take it to the bank, but it may even be the case that rape is more likely than consensual sex to induce pregnancy in humans.
Everybody in the media thinks it is interesting that a Republican candidate got tripped up in being challenged on the abortion issue by means of a philosophical edge case. No one seems to take much notice of how big a deal we make of these cases themselves. It is fine that Akin got humiliated and may lose his political career, since a political campaign is, in part, an IQ test. He failed the test by letting it slip that he may think some species of sexual assault are less “legitimate” than others. He might as well have added a “heh heh heh” and waggled his eyebrows salaciously while he was at it.
In some contexts there are valid reasons to distinguish violent rape from other kinds, just as we distinguish murder from manslaughter. But the officiousness with which Akin is being belaboured is appropriate to our time in history: we have only lately blown up the methods of social control once used to protect women from non-consensual sex, and a few generations of men are having to have it drummed into them that sex without consent always has the essential nature of rape, whether you paid for dinner or not. This awkwardness is part of the price for the transition from an ancient social regime of patria potestas to one of ultra-individualism and contractual relationships.
Still, it’s interesting that we have made the poor little rape-baby so central to the debate over abortion—that this is the test we apply to men like Akin, even though Akin had already made his extreme pro-life position clear many times over. He thinks that abortion is wrong, and while rape is also wrong, two wrongs don’t make a right. This position has an attractive consistency when contrasted with the fudges some people come up with in confronting abortion. If you want to make an exception for rape because in that case the woman did not choose to get pregnant, will you make one for the broken condom and the forgotten birth-control pill? For a “natural family planning” calendar calculation gone awry? For a makeout session that gets out of hand?
To the degree that a “pro-life” position respects a woman’s choice, it becomes a “pro-choice” position very quickly in practice, as the “exceptions” naturally expand to cover nearly every conceivable situation in which a woman will want to seek an abortion. Women don’t get abortions because they’re laugh-a-minute thrill rides. They get them, and pardon me if I’ve buried the lede here, because they’re pregnant and they don’t want to be pregnant anymore.
The real function of the rape hypothetical is to force the Todd Akins of the world to make their premises explicit. The fertilized ovum being sacred, and having all the entitlements and endowments of a fully formed human being, its mother must inevitably be assigned the attributes of a heifer and made to carry the child to term at all hazards. (Indeed, her conduct could conceivably be policed to ensure that the fetus survives to term in good health.) The pain, inconvenience, danger, and expense to be experienced by the mere vessel count for nothing; the principle that the child’s existence is in no sense subservient or incomplete must be upheld, even if we never in any other way behave as though this principle were true, and even if no one really thought it was true until about 1965, and even if the implications are somewhat ridiculous.
That is the pro-life proposition, and the details of the child’s origin are ultimately tangential. But it’s not a coincidence that pro-lifers have, within their cultural cocoon, concocted a myth that deflects the rape issue—the edgiest of all the edge cases.