Law, Nature, and “Legitimate” Rape

Missouri Republican Todd Akin, who is running for the United States Senate, has created a focal point for his party’s attitudes toward women that may have huge implications, across the board, for the upcoming election.

The row began when Akin made an absurd, ignorant, and offensive comment on a Missouri talk show: he claimed doctors had told him that, in cases of “legitimate rape,” women’s bodies automatically rejected the fetus.  Akin’s conclusion, then, is that there is no need for the law to provide exceptions for rape in its rules against abortion because women already had protection from nature.  Of course the first problem is the use of the word “legitimate” about any rape.  But the ignorant claim that a rape victim’s body naturally rejects the pregnancy is magical thinking–what kind of “doctor” could possibly have told him this?

The political fallout is likely to be major.  Already, Mitt Romney has asked Akin, who has apologized publicly, to remove himself from the Senate race. Akin has refused, calling the outcry against his comments an “overreaction.” It is getting increasingly hard to distance any Republican from barbaric attitudes toward women–the Party itself is adopting a platform that forbids abortion in any and all cases, including rape.

But this may well be the issue that finally brings the Republicans the negative attention they deserve. William Saletan, writing for Slate, has done an excellent demographic analysis of the political import of this issue.  Saletan ran several cross tabs on attitudes toward whether women should have the right to abortion when raped.  He created several groups defined by various attitudes–“bleeding hearts” versus “law and order” types, for instance–and found that those who wish to improve law enforcement are even more emphatic than more liberal Americans about the rights of women to have abortions in the case of rape.  So, though abortion splits one way when respondents think the woman is pregnant due to her own sexual choices, it actually reverses when rape is involved, with more traditionally conservative citizens emphatically coming down on the side of women to terminate the pregnancy.

You can see, then, why Romney, who is himself no particular friend to women, would take such drastic steps as to ask Akin to remove himself–the association could cost Romney and the Party a great deal.

Nevertheless, the Republicans have consistently been on the wrong side with regard to women, especially in recent months.  Emma Keller, writing for the Guardian, voices the question many of us have:  Who are the women of the Republican Party and why are they silent? Keller asserts that the irrational fear of stepping up to complain about sexual violence is the same fear that keeps women from insisting on respect and rights in election debate.  She ends by calling for American women to step up in this election, as they have not done in the past, and insist on being considered as full citizens:

“The November presidential election looks to be heading to be as much about women’s rights as the economy. Women outnumber men in both the general population and the electorate. We can no longer blame an outmoded way of thinking on the patriarchy. These are OUR parties. This is OUR issue. Let’s take control of it.”

We can only hope that the women who cower in the shadows of the Republican Party hear the call.

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