The Real Issue in Todd Akin's Abortion Comments

Todd Akin's claim that a woman can prevent pregnancy in the case of abortion has caused other Republicans to distance themselves from him.

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This May 17, 2011 file photo shows U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate, in Creve Coeur, Mo. Akin said in an interview Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012 with St. Louis television station KTVI that pregnancy from rape is "really rare." Akin, who has said he opposes all abortions, said in the interview if a woman is raped, her body "has ways to shut that whole thing down."

There's something oddly encouraging about the fact that even in our hypermanaged, message-controlled political world, someone who may singularly hold the keys to the Senate majority can still say something so remarkably stupid and impolitic.

Thus, we have GOP Senate contender Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri telling a St Louis television reporter why he opposed abortion even in cases of rape:

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Akin later said he "misspoke," but the damage has been done, and it's hard to know where to start with what's wrong with that remark. What is "legitimate rape?" Can an accused attacker claim he was an "illegitimate rapist" and be spared from prosecution? Is the crazy idea that a woman can stop pregnancy from occurring some kind of bizarre twist to the idea that children are born of love (and therefore sex that didn't happen with love won't result in pregnancy)? Is our educational system so troubled—or sex education so imperiled—that a grown man cannot know such basic facts about human reproduction? And how is it possible that someone can serve on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology without picking up basic scientific knowledge?

[GOP Brand Hurt by 'Legitimate Rape' Claim]

It was clear Republicans were nervous, since GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, speedily issued a statement separating themselves from Akin's remarks. And Rep. Denny Rehberg, the GOP Senate nominee in Montana, called Akin's comments "offensive and reprehensible." Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, probably the most vulnerable of the Democratic incumbents, actually ran attack ads against Akin in the primary, achieving the counterintuitive goal of getting him nominated. That was smart: Akin's remarks—combined with things like comparing student loans to Stage 3 cancer—could help McCaskill squeak by in her relatively conservative state. A McCaskill win could squelch what had looked like a good chance for the GOP to take back the Senate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

The real issue in Akin's bizarre mental gymnastics may be the discomfort some anti-abortion activists have with the idea of forcing an assaulted woman to carry the spawn of her rapist. Frequently, those who oppose abortion "even in cases of rape and incest" are characterized as holding a position that is the most extreme against women. In terms of practical impact, this is true. But those who oppose abortion under any circumstances are more intellectually consistent—and arguably, less critical of women—than those who oppose abortion in cases of consensual sex. Allowing only victims of rape and incest to get abortions isn't a judgment of abortion at all. It's a judgment of how the pregnancy occurred, and therefore, a judgment of the woman for having sex. It may seem cruel to further punish a woman who was sexually victimized, but at least it's a consistent position on the procedure of abortion itself, as opposed to the person seeking it.

Perhaps that was the moral conundrum facing Akin. Or maybe he's just missed a few too many meetings of the Science Committee.

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