What Else Did Akin Say? (Parsing a Perfect Storm)
By now, we’re all pretty sick of the name Todd Akin. We’ve been saturated for days with blog posts and TV spots, repeating Akin’s claim that pregnancy cannot result from “legitimate rape.” We’ve groaned at the mash-up of pseudoscience and rape apologism and cheered to hear President Obama refute the “offensive” remarks, with straightforward insistence that “rape is rape.” We’ve redoubled our efforts, not only against Akin, but against his political bedfellows and against the anti-choice platform as a whole.
And maybe we’d like to move on now, to declare a new topic du jour. But as we harness our political energies, we’re aware that the Right is also gathering theirs. We’re aware that grassroots supporters of Akin raised nearly $100,000 in less than twenty-four hours. And we’re aware that our disgust at Akin is, alone, an inadequate tool for dismantling rape culture.
So, we reread the pieces of the past few days, or we read new ones reiterating them: We note that Akin’s comments are abhorrent, but his position is not an aberration. That the 2012 GOP platform includes a federal ban on abortion, without exception for rape or incest survivors . That vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan co-sponsored Akin’s bill, seeking to limit the legal definition of rape to “forcible” attacks. But Akin’s fail-packed few lines to a TV interviewer say still more about the struggles of pro-choice activism. Examined carefully, they’re a perfect storm of anti-choice ideologies, and the better we understand each element of Akin’s claim, the better we’re armed to survive it.
The notion that rape is not always rape is, of course, a key part of this agenda. We must insist, as the President did, that “the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn’t make sense” and will not be tolerated. We must insist on this whether the idea of “gray rape” is being put forth by the Right or the Left. (Just last year, feminist Naomi Wolf claimed that our refusal to limit rape advocacy to cases of excessive force insults rape victims. Of course, refusing to name all rapes rape, to trust rape survivors, or to advocate against rape in all circumstances, might constitute an “insult” as well.)
But Akin – far from his claims of having misspoken – did not openly attack rape survivors. Instead, he couched his statement in blatantly bullshit pseudoscience: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Asking the GOP to check its cissexism – and recognize that not only women get pregnant – may be a losing battle in a feminist movement that rarely manages the same. Still, it’s worth calling out. Just as it’s worth calling out the total lack of factual basis for Akin’s pregnancy defense system. (What is it – a cross-breeding of the home security system and the chastity belt?) The idea should be laughable, but in the current political climate, the humor is lost. When the majority of sexual education programs and sexual health policies are also rooted in pseudoscience, when California high-schoolers are learning HIV can spread through kisses, and when fear of teenage sluttiness keeps cancer vaccines off the market, comments like Akin’s are harder to laugh off. Look at the ban on “partial-birth” abortion. False science creates real obstacles.
It’s also worth noting that Akin attributed his pseudoscientific claims to “doctors” — arguably the only authority allowed more license than politicians to police our sexual choice. Obama — whose remarks Monday earned Tumblr tags including “thank you Mr. President” — is not himself above that “this choice is between a woman and her doctor” rhetoric. While we increasingly scrutinize the authority of politicians to make decisions regarding other people’s privates, the party line continues to confer power to an external authority. And that authority can, as Akin shows, be appropriated against our interests.
This is not, by any stretch, to suggest that doctors are the de facto opposition. Many physicians have come out to debunk Akin’s claims. The pro-choice movement relies on icons like Dr. George Tiller and organizations like Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PHRC). But the symbolic “doctor” – as someone with authority on par with (or surpassing) that of the uterus-bearer – is a danger to our cause. The fact that disputed decisions like Roe v. Wade codify the physician’s right to choose alongside the patient’s1 says a lot about the reach of this authority.
If we are to work against the ideas Akin represents — that rape is not always rape, that pseudoscience has a place in policy, and that the authority of the doctor is always paramount to the authority of the patient — we must work against them on all levels. Akin would not be nearly so dangerous if his beliefs weren’t so mainstream. And his danger will lessen, significantly, the more willing we are to recognize the glaring implications of each word he “misspoke.”
1 The Supreme Court ruling on Roe V. Wade puts forth that “the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the State, that, in his medical judgment, the patient’s pregnancy should be terminated.” Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, (1973).