According to a 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 5 percent of rape victims of reproductive age will become pregnant, leading to a little more than 32,000 pregnancies in the United States each year. We have no way of knowing how many of these rapes would be considered by Rep. Todd Akin to be “legitimate.” We do know that the Missouri Senate candidate, like many high-profile Republicans, believes that in every case, the government should force the rape victims to carry their pregnancies to term.
Akin is currently in a lot of trouble for telling a local TV station on Sunday that women possess magical mechanisms for preventing conception when they’ve been attacked. “If it’s a legitimate rape,” he said, in words that have now echoed around the political world, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” The implication, of course, is that women who do get pregnant probably haven’t been really raped–it’s a barely updated version of the medieval conviction that women had to orgasm in order to conceive.
By Sunday afternoon, Akin had walked his comments back, saying, “"In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it's clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” Even if we take him at his word that he did not mean to impugn pregnant rape victims, his outburst tells us a lot about the modern Republican party’s attitude toward women, and the difficulty conservative politicians have when forced to explain their absolutist anti-abortion politics to the general public.
After all, Akin’s willingness to voice ludicrous fantasies about female reproductive biology may be striking, but his policy position—that abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest—is quite common in today’s GOP. Indeed, it’s the position held by Paul Ryan, though the Mitt Romney campaign said on Sunday that a “Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.” Many of the speakers at next week’s Republican National Convention want to ban abortions for rape victims, including Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Mike Huckabee. This spring, the Republican House blocked a bill that would allow female soldiers who’d been raped to use their insurance to pay for abortions. (Rape in the military isn’t an insignificant problem—according to the Defense Department, 875 rapes were reported in 2010, and the DOD estimates that 86 percent of sexual assaults went unreported.)
So while banning abortion for rape victims used to be an outré position among Republicans, now it’s become almost normative. Politicians who hold such views, however, haven’t come up with a good way to talk about them. Indeed, it’s not clear that they’re willing to grapple with the consequences of their beliefs themselves. The fiction that real victims don’t get pregnant—a notion whose absurdity should be obvious to anyone who has ever read about Serbian rape camps or the epidemic of sexual violence in Congo—allows them to elide the entire issue. Otherwise, they would have to say forthrightly that they believe that the state should subject women who’ve been raped to forced pregnancy.
Akin didn’t pull his crazy idea about women’s inborn ability to fend off rape pregnancies out of thin air. As Garance Franke-Ruta writes in The Atlantic, it’s a common anti-abortion canard, and one that Republicans have spouted before. If you Google “number of pregnancies annually resulting from rape,” one of the first results to come up is a 1999 article by John C. Willke, former president of the National Right to Life Committee, headlined, “Assault Rape Pregnancies Are Rare.” First, Willke argues that rape statistics are uncertain, because while some women don’t report rapes, others “pregnant from consensual intercourse, have later claimed rape.” Secondly, he continues, when women are actually raped, the trauma upsets their endocrine system in a way that prevents pregnancy. “To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape.”
Buzzfeed’s Anna North has found several examples of Republicans making this claim over the last few decades. In 1988, Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephen Friend, a leading anti-abortion legislator, got in trouble for claiming that the trauma of rape causes women to "secrete a certain secretion" that kills sperm. In 1995, North Carolina state Rep. Henry Aldridge told the House Appropriations Committee, “The facts show that people who are raped—who are truly raped—the juices don't flow, the body functions don't work, and they don't get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.”
It’s in this context that one should understand efforts like the 2011 No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act, which both Akin and Ryan cosponsored. Right now, there’s an exception to the ban on federal funding for abortion in case of rape, but that bill would have changed it to “forcible rape.” That’s language commonly used by those who deny that pregnancy results from “legitimate” rape. As Willke wrote, “When pro-lifers speak of rape pregnancies, we should commonly use the phrase ‘forcible rape’ or ‘assault rape,’ for that specifies what we're talking about.”
What’s outrageous about Akin’s words, then, isn’t so much his fantastical ideas about reproductive biology. It’s the laws he wants to enact. And when it comes to his policy positions, in today’s Republican Party, Akin isn’t considered outrageous at all.