One More Manifestation of Far Right Anti-Science
Indelicate as it was, Todd Akin’s remark that a woman cannot physically become pregnant by rape underscores the conservative notion that the capacity to bear children imposes upon women a moral obligation rather than a claim to moral agency. If Akin’s understanding of biological reproduction were sound, a woman could never conceive without choosing to have sex, and could therefore never be free of blame for her own pregnancy. The choice to have sex, so the pro-life story goes, comprises both the choice to risk pregnancy and the obligation to carry that pregnancy to term because human life starts at conception.
Rape frustrates this moral decree, especially within politically correct speech. By exonerating the woman, the case of rape transforms a man from being approximately 0% responsible for an unintended pregnancy to 100% responsible for it.[i] Further complicating the matter is a rapist’s presumed unfitness to parent, as well as the obvious danger and wickedness of expecting a woman to maintain a relationship with her assailant. Unfortunately, as Shauna Prewitt’s Story shows, the law has not caught up with this thinking. Prewitt discovered that she was not alone in having to fight her rapist for custody over her daughter. In 31 states, a rapist can claim the same custody and visitation rights as any other biological father. No matter that rape accounts for less than 1% of abortion cases, and false accusations of rape notwithstanding, this legal situation is sickeningly hostile to women.
Of course most pregnancies are not from rape, and clearly many men support their partners in the difficult choice of how to handle an unintended pregnancy (assuming they have been informed of it). Today’s abortion rhetoric on both sides of the political debate, however, leaves the moral input of men out of the equation: pro-choicers award the woman the ultimate say in whether she carries out a pregnancy (it is her body, after all) while still demanding that a man pay child support[ii]; meanwhile pro-lifers tend not to acknowledge the male role in reproduction, and instead lay all of the shame on the woman if she decides to have an abortion.
And then we have Representative Todd Akin, Republican from Missouri. By denying biological reality altogether, his remark – regardless of whether it was a lengthy Freudian slip (from the collective conservative mind) or an earnest expression of his own beliefs – betrays a desperate wish for women to lack any moral claim over the contents of their womb. To negate rape as a method of conception is to deny a pregnant woman a freedom that, in pro-lifers’ eyes, can only have been earned through her own victimization. God or nature simply would not allow this situation to exist, Akin’s words suggest; it can never be the case that a woman is both pregnant and innocent (unless, of course, she is the Virgin Mary), because that would give her uncomfortably legitimate grounds to shirk her obligation to motherhood.
But Akins is far from alone. The list is long of Republicans who have expressed this same view and it has been promulgated by the National Right to Life Committee, also. Many conservatives have expressed a faith that God would not allow a woman to become pregnant by rape; truly a cruel reality-denying position. Others, such as Mike Huckabee, who weighed in to support Akins, reminded his viewers that forcible rape has resulted in numerous exceptional people!
Beneath the relatively recent idea that abortion is equivalent to murder, of course, is the concept of ensoulment – the moment that a human acquires or becomes endowed with a soul (which in the abortion debate appears to be equivalent to gaining a “right to life”). The Christian view on ensoulment has varied substantially over the centuries without seeming to clarify or approach some objective or divine truth about the human condition. The question of ensoulment certainly has a place in religious discourse, but the pro-life dogma and extremism offered lately by many Republicans — vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, for instance — would suggest that the more officious breed of Republican not only knows the answer to this timeless question, but gives no weight to how they reached their conclusion. That Catholics maintain they have gotten this message from God Himself through the Pope does little to facilitate any discussion of maternal versus fetal rights.
The last several decades instead have seen this “philosophical debate” “progress” with the rise of an absolutist pro-life movement that defines abortion at any stage of gestation as completely morally equivalent to murder. To assume this position is to assert that, if faced with the choice of killing a month-old embryo or killing a two-year old, one would be willing to flip a coin to make the decision. While this position captures a simplistic but technically valid conclusion of one side of the debate, its alleged pro-choice counterpart – the view that partial birth abortion or even infanticide is morally acceptable – has gained far less popularity and rarely if ever forms part of mainstream pro-choice rhetoric. It is not necessarily that the entire pro-life position is inherently the less nuanced argument; it is rather that a simplistic, peremptory version of it has developed curiously right alongside the more moderate pro-life allowances for rape or maternal health.
The decisive nature of current pro-life political discourse betrays a pathological pursuit of power rather than a serious quest for “truth” or “justice”. Much of the legislation proposed by the pro-life movement focuses narrowly on controlling women’s bodies. Fertilized eggs are poised to acquire the same rights as the women who incubate them; legislation that would physically force women considering abortion to endure penetration and view the image of their own womb has become frighteningly possible and has been proposed in several states by Republican lawmakers. To be clear, what is alarming is not that these measures are logically incompatible with the absolutist pro-life view — it is that they are ludicrously invasive and demoralizing to women, and they evince zero interest in compromise or discussion.
Perhaps what is most chilling about these extreme pro-life efforts, however, is the set of beliefs that they are often packaged with by the Republican Party. Throughout the current campaign, the GOP has illustrated an odd caricature of a conservative voter with its disjointed “conservative” messages; one that seems to say that unless it is helping to force all pregnant women to give birth, the government is nothing but a profligate thief who wants to keep poor people lazy and dependent.
While Romney and Ryan champion the very self-reliance they claim makes government hardly necessary, they support legislation that does women’s thinking for them without so much as the slightest gesture of compassion, or the cursory acknowledgment that it is already traumatic enough without Republican legislation seizing control of their wombs. Which brings us back to Akin’s comment, which was basically to say that yes, rape is so awful that “Nature” even made sure that it could not produce children, and so it is not even relevant to the abortion debate. Instead, any discussion of abortion should reinforce the obligation women have to become mothers every time they become pregnant.
Social conservatives distrust the liberal view that having children is an option or lifestyle choice in the first place, even if that means simply postponing pregnancy until a better time. They may also understand liberals to believe that sex is not optional, what with their demands for birth control coverage and abortion rights. The right refuses to recognize the overall economic benefits of birth control out of devotion to condemning anything that acknowledges people have sex for legitimate reasons other than reproduction, and especially anything that affords women freedom to have sex without the intention to procreate.
But is this aversion to sex outside marriage and parenthood out of concern solely for the potential life that sex can create? Or is it in part out of an immature squeamishness not only with the idea of women as autonomous sexual beings, but also with unconventional gender roles and/or unconventional sex acts that do not fit into the patriarchal nuclear family, where sex takes place at the male’s discretion and for the purpose of procreation? Clearly the right has dug in its heels in protest of feminism becoming the default instead of the radical social position on gender, and instead has taken to denying reality altogether in favor of fantasies that saddle women with shame and a lack of agency in all matters sexual.
[i]We are lucky in the West; while we are not all the way past “blaming the victim”, we are nowhere near the attitude of cultures that accept killing a rape victim as a way to preserve your/her family’s honor.
[ii]As much as I agree that child support should be required, there’s something awfully cold and cheap about the state saying “well, you at least have to provide some money until the kid is 18; that’s all we care about”. Though what other position could it possibly take?
Jackie Colvin is a staff writer for The Leftist Review. She is also a freelance writer and lives in Chicago