Akin's Blunder


This week the issue of abortion veritably erupted into the public arena as the senatorial candidate in Missouri, Todd Akin, made certain comments about the permissibility or lack thereof of abortion in cases of rape. This was widely reported in the media and then he received severe denunciations for his comments. Even his own party abandoned him and encouraged him to drop out of the race which up to now I believe he has refused to do.

What is it exactly that Akin had to say and what was wrong about his comments? Well, on the St. Louis television station KTVI, Akin was asked whether he believes that abortion is justified in cases of rape. If a woman is raped and becomes pregnant, is abortion morally justified and should it be legal in such cases? As part of his answer Akin addressed the subject of pregnancy as a result of rape. He said, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare . . . If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Well, within hours, there was a literal feeding frenzy in the media condemning his remarks. Just a few hours after his statement, his opponent in the senatorial race in Missouri released the following statement:

As a former prosecutor, Claire McCaskill has worked closely with hundreds of rape victims and intimately understands their trauma and pain. It is that experience that makes Akin’s statements so outrageous.

So, according to McCaskill, what was outrageous about Akin’s statements was not anything that he said in terms of their content, it was that his opponent – McCaskill – understands the trauma and the pain of rape victims and apparently Akin does not.

Soon, however, Akin’s comments were widely denounced as expressing not just his opinion about abortion in the case of rape but all sorts of other speculative and conjectural implications were read into Akin’s statement. For example, one columnist headlined her editorial on this, “Todd Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Comment Was Not a Misstatement. It Was a Worldview.” So it is a whole worldview that is at issue here, according to this author. This is what she said:

But if you believe that the Bible is the “inerrant word of God,” as Akin apparently does, given his Master of Divinity from the Covenant Theological Seminary, then you can believe all kinds of things. That the world is 6,000 years old, for instance, and that evolution is a conspiracy organized by pretty much every biologist, geologist, paleontologist, ecologist, biochemist and geneticist working in the past century and a half, plus Satan. If God can produce Jesus through a virgin birth, he can certainly prevent a worthy-enough victim of “legitimate rape” from carrying her rapist’s child.[1]

So I think you can see here all sorts of worldview issues and implications and speculations were read into Akin’s statement that weren’t literally part of that statement whatsoever. This comment was not unusual. The media is just full of these sorts of conjectural and speculative statements about Akin’s worldview and what was expressed by his comment.

So I want to take a step back, lower the emotional tone a bit, and ask ourselves: what was it that he said that was outrageous enough to disqualify him as a political candidate in Missouri?[2] What did he say that was so outrageous that his apology was not sufficient but that he needs to drop out of the race?

Well, Claire McCaskill’s comment (or response) made Akin’s sin simply one of insensitivity. He didn’t understand or express appropriate concern for the victims of rape and the trauma and the pain that they go through. So what he basically did was he was insensitive. But surely something more serious than that is going on here. You don’t have to disqualify yourself from a political race because you are insensitive. There has got to be more to the issue than that.

Well, then is it the claim that he made that pregnancies rarely result from rape? Is that what he said that was so outrageous? In the media, Akin has been denounced and ridiculed in fact for his ignorance of biology and modern medicine. He has been ridiculed as having a positively medieval, superstitious view of human physiology. But is that the case? Well, notice that Akin said in his comment that he got his information from doctors. He said “from what I understand from doctors” a woman’s body will respond to rape in this way that will stop pregnancy in most cases. Now, what else is a layman supposed to do? Someone who is not a doctor himself, what else is he supposed to do than trust what the experts in the field tell him? He listened to what the doctors told him. What else can a person like him do than that? And, in fact, when I looked into this, I’ve seen conflicting data on this issue. At the very high end are claims that about 5% of rapes will result in pregnancy. That is the high end of the statistic often put forward by pro-choice groups. That about 5% of rapes result in pregnancy. But there are conflicting data that suggests that it may be far less than 1% - a mere fraction of 1%. The very trauma and the pain to which Akin was allegedly said to be insensitive may prevent conception or result in a spontaneous miscarriage in cases of rape. So the rate of pregnancy that comes from rape may be, as I say, much less than 1%. But even conceded the very highest of the figures – 5% - what that implies when you think about it is that 95% of rapes do not result in pregnancy. 95% of rapes do not result in pregnancy. What that means is the percentage of abortions that occur every year that involve rape cases is a very small percentage of the total number of abortions performed every year. Abortions that are performed due to rape is a very small percent of the total number of abortions.

Now, why is this important? Why bring this up? Well, because of a principle known to legislators and lawyers alike: hard cases make bad law. In particular, allowing abortion on demand because of rape cases has resulted in the sacrifice of millions of innocent human lives since 1973 in this country alone. These extraordinary cases like rape and incest don’t serve to justify the current laws of abortion on demand for any reason at any time even partial birth abortion which really is baby killing – it amounts to infanticide. At the same time however, it also means that for the sake of political expediency, one may support a law that you regard as less than optimal. For example, allowing exceptions for abortions in the case of rape and incest in order to protect the vast majority of innocent lives at risk. So someone who is pro-life might be willing to make a compromise and for the purpose of saving the vast, vast majority of lives permit abortions to be taken legal in the cases of rape and incest.[3]

So I don’t think that what Akin said about the frequency relative to the pregnancy rate from rape is what was really outrageous about his comments. Rather, what Akin said that was wrong, I think, is his use of the term “legitimate rape.” But we need to ask ourselves what did he mean by that expression? The media has taken it out of context. I heard it reported in the media that “Akin has said that there are cases of legitimate rape.” That makes it sound as if what he was saying was there are cases in which rape is legitimate or rape is permissible. That is not at all what he is saying as you could tell from the context of his remarks that I read. He was using the word “legitimate” to mean something like “genuine.” Like if a person were to say, “That wasn’t just a misdemeanor, that was a legitimate felony that he committed.” A genuine felony. A real felony. Other idioms that could be used to express this would be something like “honest to goodness” or “bona fide.” You don’t mean these things really are bona fide or good but it is a way of saying genuine or real. That is clearly what Akin meant by the phrase; in the cases of real rape the pregnancy rate is very low.

And I think that is exactly why his remark was objectionable. It has the implication that a rape which is not accompanied by the sort of physical brutality that would stop a pregnancy isn’t real rape. It is not genuine rape. And that is, I think, morally objectionable and wrong. The problem that Akin faced really is how do you express his point of view in a soundbite on a television interview. For example, President Obama in response to Akin’s comment distinguished between forcible rape and non-forcible rape. So should Akin, instead of saying “legitimate rape,” should he have said “in cases of forcible rape” then pregnancy rate is relatively low. Well, no, that wouldn’t have worked either when you think about it. You can imagine the outcry that would have ensued if he had said that. What about rape that is date rape where a woman’s boyfriend rapes her? Or what about rape at gunpoint where a woman’s best hope of survival is simply to acquiesce. They might not have the sort of physical brutality but they are still forced sexual intercourse, there is still forcible rape. So making the distinction between forcible and non-forcible rape would not have done either. What about maybe making the distinction between violent rape and non-violent rape? Would that have expressed what he wanted to? Well, no! That wouldn’t work either because the critic would be very quick to point out that rape is itself an act of violence. So to talk about non-violent rape would be an oxymoron. You are implying that then rape is not itself an act of violence.

So the difficulty is how do you express what he was trying to express in a soundbite? To express Akin’s point, I think you have to use some sort of explanation that doesn’t fit into a soundbite. For example, something like “Rape which is accompanied by physical brutality in addition to the act of rape itself.” That kind of rape doesn’t typically result in pregnancy. Rape which is accompanied by physical brutality in addition to the act of rape itself.

Unfortunately, Akin’s stumble or blunder here gave an opening for pro-choice forces to swarm like hyenas upon a wounded animal. The real offense here, what really generates the anger, I believe, is Akin’s consistent pro-life position. That is what his opponents really despise and why he has become the object of so much abuse and denunciation.

Anybody who thinks that abortion is morally justified in cases of rape merely shows that he has not understood the logic of the pro-life position.[4] People who think that abortion is ethically justified in cases of rape simply reveal that they don’t understand the logic of the pro-life position. As heart wrenching as such a situation is, you can’t ethically kill an innocent human being because somebody else committed a horrible crime. That would be immoral. Imagine that we had before us here a little girl and a little boy who had been conceived through rape. Would it be morally justified to kill those children because of the manner of their conception? Well, obviously not. Of course not! That would not be justified. But that little girl or that little boy is just an older version of the same human being that once lived in utero. It is the same little girl or boy just at an earlier stage of his or her development. So what we need to do in response to these rape cases is to offer all of the help and support which is possible to victims of rape. We do not need to kill their babies. Instead, we need to help these mothers so that they are able to carry the baby to term and perhaps give it up for adoption to a couple who will love and care for it.

Now whether Akin is so damaged politically as a result of his blunder that he should resign from the race is not for me to say. That is a political decision, not an ethical or philosophical decision to make. But I do think it is a shame that he has been tried and condemned in the kangaroo court of the pro-choice media.[5]

[1] Laura Helmuth, “Todd Akin's "Legitimate Rape" Comment Was Not a Misstatement. It Was a Worldview.,” Slate, August 20, 2012. See: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/08/20/todd_akin_s_legitimate_rape_comment_not_a_misstatement_but_a_worldview_.html (accessed September 25, 2013).

[2] 5:04

[3] 10:11

[4] 15:11

[5] Total Running Time: 17:12 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)