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Sex & Politics: Legitimate Rape

News & Features | October 1, 2012

“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.”

This was the explanation of Representative Todd Akin when asked his stance on abortion in the instance of rape during a television interview on August 19, 2012. The comment, which seemed to indicate that rape could be “legitimate,” and that women could control impregnation in the event of rape, incited outrage across the political spectrum.

Todd Akin has been a Republican congressman for six terms in Missouri and is currently in a senate race against the incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. Akin won the Republican Party primary in early August, and his chances at the senate seat were looking highly favorable towards the end of the summer. McCaskill was losing support amongst her key constituencies due in part to her ties to Obama, and in part to the large monetary donations Akin was receiving. Akin was appealing to a highly conservative demographic, including many Tea Party conservatives, with a heavy focus on Christian issues. Akin openly discussed his membership in the Presbyterian Church and often charged liberals with trying to eliminate God from the public consciousness.

After his comment regarding “legitimate rape” Akin’s support quickly spiraled away. The left became outraged, and a cry went up around the country.  Senator McCaskill tweeted: “As a woman & former prosecutor who handled 100s of rape cases, I’m stunned by Rep Akin’s comments about victims this AM.” Pundits grabbed on to the issue and op-ed articles abounded.

There has been vast discourse on the idea of “legitimate rape.” In 2011, Akin co-sponsored a bill that made abortion only legal in instances of “forcible rape.”  This term, penned by Akin, seemed aimed to nullify abortions due to statutory rape. Was statutory rape no longer “legitimate”? Similarly, did Akin and others in power actually believe women have biological control over whether they become pregnant? Advocates from Planned Parenthood have cited Akin’s statement as precisely what they aim to combat, as it demonstrated sexism in blaming women for being victims of rape, as well as a basic lack of understanding of the human reproductive system.

The Republicans also swiftly backpedalled away from the Akin camp, as he was first politely asked and then fiercely pressured to give up his senate run.  Akin lost all monetary support, including $5 million that had been allocated for advertising. The Republicans were concerned not only about their public image, but about losing a seat that would be essential in obtaining a senate majority. Governor Romney’s campaign released a statement saying: “Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement. A Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.”

Akin publically apologized soon after the comment: “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. I recognize that abortion, and particularly in the case of rape, is a very emotionally charged issue. But I believe deeply in the protection of all life, and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action.” Many argue that this apology is not enough, and that the remarks are not retractable.

Furthermore, Akin refuses to relinquish his run for the senate seat. Though he has lost all of his support financially, Akin believes that it is his duty to continue. Akin argues that it is, “appropriate to recognize a creator, God, whose blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the very source of American freedom,” and that no other candidate is doing that.

I spoke to sophomore Ruby Vail, president of VOX, a reproductive rights and sexual health awareness club on campus that is affiliated with Planned Parenthood. VOX works to “promote sexual health, advocate for reproductive rights and de-stigmatize sexual pleasure on Tufts’ campus as well as in the greater community.”  Vail explained: “Todd Akin is ridiculous for saying that. Just ridiculous. I was appalled by how uninformed and just plain wrong he is as I’m sure other members of VOX are. What is most problematic for me in his response is that he doesn’t acknowledge what his statement did to invalidate the experience of many survivors of rape.” Vail reflected that much of the Tufts community seemed to express similar sentiments.

In regards to action VOX is looking at the political side: “VOX has discussed it in our meetings and I’m sure we will include Akin’s remark as well as similar remarks made by other politicians in our presentations on candidates in preparation for the upcoming election.” In terms of Akin’s own upcoming election, Vail does not expect a resurgence from the representative from Missouri. “I have a hard time believing that he would win the race after the backlash from that comment, but it is truly absurd that after making such a mistake he wouldn’t run away with his tail between his legs. Had he made such a misstatement about the economy, the climate in the Middle East, or any number of other issues, he would have been laughed off the stage.”

Akin’s senate race does not appear an easy one, and most pundits agree the Republicans can count on losing the Missouri senate seat. Yet, however horrifying, Akin’s comments caused controversy across the nation, and re-opened the never-closed conversations regarding rape and abortion. And perhaps more conversation is what is needed.