[Original post August 21, 2012]
Both good ideas and bad ideas form from and as part of the larger “idea fabric” all of us share. The comments of Representative Todd Akins (R-Missouri) about “legitimate rape” are one stellar example. The below is an attempt to explore the bundle of bad (a.k.a. FALSE) ideas contained in his comments.
Akins, who is pro-life (and in a bit of irony sits on the House Science Committee), was asked about abortion in the case of rape and responded this way:
“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. But let’s assume maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
And for the exact context:
In a super-heated 2012 campaign environment, this comment created a firestorm of controversy. Rep. Akin is apparently hanging tough in his Senate race, telling friend Mike Huckabee “I’ve had a chance now to have run through a primary, and the party people said when you win the primary then we’ll be with you. Well, they were with us. Then I said one word and one sentence on one day, and everything changed. I haven’t done anything morally or ethically wrong. It does seem like a little bit of an overreaction.”
What bad — as in false — ideas are represented in the comment by Representative Akins?
I offer this list without — initially — exploring the roots of any of it:
Bad idea #1: Pregnancy via rape is extremely rare to virtually non-existent.
Bad idea #2: A “legitimate rape” is an actual category. (The term “forcible rape” can be used instead to impart a similar sense of categorization, as opposed to, uh, “rape” with no modifier.)
Bad idea #3 (expanding on #1): Sure-fire biological processes prevent women from getting pregnant if they are raped.
Bad idea #4 (expanding on #2): If a woman does in fact get pregnant when raped, there’s a good chance she had (my term) an “illegitimate rape” — that is, a rape that wasn’t a rape but instead was consensual sex.
Bad idea #5 (and I write this as a pro-life advocate who’s also a feminist): A consistent pro-life ethic requires us to militate against elective abortion even in the case of rape and incest.
Following are further bad ideas which I believe are implied by Representative Akins.
Bad idea #6: Rape cannot result in pregnancy (or at least can do so only rarely) because female orgasm is necessary for impregnation to occur. Or (alternative explanation with some overlap), a woman’s body releases chemicals that inhibit pregnancy when she is raped.
Bad idea #7 (extending from #6): Orgasm occurs in a woman only when she desires sex.
Bad idea #8 (extending from #6, #7): A pregnant woman, therefore, is a woman who wanted the sex leading to her pregnancy.
Bad idea #9, serving as summary for all above ideas: A woman who becomes pregnant cannot have been raped, and therefore is lying when she says she has been raped. She obviously wanted it…. sex, that is. When she seeks elective abortion alleging rape, she is telling an even bigger lie because she is pregnant and again pregnancy can only occur when orgasm occurs, and orgasm can occur only when sex is voluntarily sought, and therefore she was not raped. She’s lying.
I’m sure I missed some of the bad ideas… readers are welcomed to add to my list via the comment section below. But onward and, er, backward.
Turns out a number of misunderstandings contribute to the erroneous set of beliefs above. For one thing, until the modern era, it was a common belief that women like men released a “seed” at orgasm which the male’s united with to create a pregnancy.
Modern science finds something radically different.
First, unlike the Medieval ideas, science shows there is no “female sperm” or “seed” released at orgasm. (I’m embarrassed to have to explain biology 101, but that’s the sort of age we apparently live in, despite the readily available information about human reproduction.) Rather, the female body releases unfertilized eggs at fairly set times during a regular cycle. That cycle is not determined by intercourse or the lack thereof, but rather by (in almost all cases) a biological clock within the female body. We call the key part of the cycle “ovulation” — the release of the egg from the ovaries.
Second, where pregnancy is concerned it is most often the male sperm that does the waiting for the egg rather than vice-versa. And this is extremely important in understanding how rape can and does lead to pregnancy. A woman’s body is, if caught at the time of her cycle where an egg has either been released or is near to being released, incredibly vulnerable to being impregnated by *any* introduction of male semen. It doesn’t matter whether the act was that of a passionately in love husband and wife or a knife-wielding, fist-swinging rapist. The bodily clock of the female will continue to tick, eggs will continue to be released, and if sperm awaits the egg it will likely lead to pregnancy.
Third, there’s a powerful apparent (but unfortunately false) logic in the idea that pregnancy-by-rape would somehow be thwarted by a woman’s body. After all, we are wholistic people these days, and understand that the physical, psychological, and spiritual interpenetrate one another and influence our totality as persons. Further, for those of us who have been raped or who love someone who has been raped, we’ve perhaps seen first-hand the sexual wreckage left behind by rape. Why wouldn’t rape “shut down” a woman’s body? As already explained, it just doesn’t work that way. The long-term aftermath may well make a woman unable to function sexually (read this study for just a brief idea how damaging rape can be to mental wellness), but it doesn’t impact the rape’s potential to impregnate her.
As Atlantic Monthly reports,
A widely-cited 1996 study from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology [AJOG] sampled over 4,000 women and found that the rape-related pregnancy rate was 5.0 percent. That is, after being raped once, a woman had a 5.0 percent chance of pregnancy. That number includes rapes in which condoms were used. Small studies from other countries have reported the percentage to be much greater.
In the United States alone, according to the AJOG, over 32,000 women annually become pregnant as the result of rape. One can only guess what the numbers worldwide, including in nations where rape is used as part of the oppression and terror of war, might be.
And this raises more talking points.
#1: What in God’s Name is “forcible rape”? Or “legitimate rape”?
A pro-life bill was introduced in Congress just this year which used the phrase “forcible rape” as one of the few exceptions to its anti-abortion thrust. But impicit in any addition to the word “rape” — especially by those who, like Representative Akin, seem so ignorant of the most basic mechanics of sexual reproduction — is a desire to delegitimate women who report being raped. I do not say Mr. Akin meant to do this, because such knowledge is beyond me. But whether ignorance or malice, the end result is to disempower further the victims of rape — rape, with no prefix or moderator before the word — and to encourage women’s further oppression in a male-defined world.
A few simple definitions of rape might look something like this:
When she says no and he proceeds anyway, it is rape.
When she is unable to say no, or to say yes, it is rape.
When she is a minor, it is rape.
When he is a father/uncle/sibling and demands, then takes sex from her, it is rape.
When she is too drunk to know what is happening, it is rape.
When she is his wife and he forces her to have sex without her wanting it, it is rape.
When she is on a date with him and he pushes sex on her despite her wishes, it is rape.
When he is a pastor and uses God as his excuse to force sex on her, it is rape.
When he is a co-worker on a trip with her and drives her to a lonely spot, then forces sex on her, it is rape.
The above is an obviously incomplete list. Rape has myriad expressions, each horribly unique.
#2: Just a short, and vital, reminder to anyone either raped or made aware someone else has been raped. According to Planned Parenthood (and yes, a Christian can quote PP positively when they’ve something positive to say):
Emergency contraception can reduce the risk of pregnancy by 75 to 89 percent. More than 22,000 unwanted pregnancies a year could be prevented if all U.S. women who were raped were provided with emergency contraception.
#3 (And this is long): Is Representative Akins alone in such erroneous thinking? No. Here are just a few more examples from recent history:
Senator Chuck Windsor (R-Idaho) said in speaking about a bill on mandatory ultrasounds before an abortion:
“Rape and incest was used as a reason to oppose this. I would hope that when a woman goes in to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that’s part of the counseling that goes on.”
In other words, “Honey, you aren’t lying to me about being raped, are you?”
Weld County, Colorado, District Attorney Ken Buck, ran for Senate (Republican) in 2006. The following was a conversation he had with a rape victim and she (legally) taped without his knowledge. Buck had refused to try her rape case against a boyfriend who had visited her apartment then forced sex on her; Buck attempted to explain his reasons for that refusal:
KB: [W]hen you look at what happened earlier in the night, all the circumstances, based on his statements and some of your statements, indicate that you invited him to come to your apartment… that you told him how to get in …. It would appear to me and it appears to others that you invited him over to have sex with him. Whether that you, at that time, were conscious enough to say yes or no… ?
Victim: So you’re telling me that previous sexual relations is enough to provide consent, and you’re telling me that because of me calling him and because of previous sexual relations and because I invited him up and told him how to get in, that invited him up for sex…
KB: I’m telling you that’s what the circumstances suggest, to people, including myself, who have looked at it. Although, you never said the word yes, but the appearance is of consent.
V: Even though, he also stated that I told him no.
KB: He stated that in a phone call that you had with him later.
Buck narrowly lost his Senate bid (thank God).
In 1990, Clayton Williams (R) was running for Governor in Texas. He compared a foggy day that was interfering with a cattle round-up to a rape: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”
He lost his Gubernatorial race.
Florida State Legislator Kathleen Passidomo (yes, a woman) suggested a little girl got raped because of the way she dressed: “There was an article about an 11-year-old girl who was gang raped in Texas by 18 young men because she was dressed like a 21-year-old prostitute.” And just to make sure folks knew her previous comment was no slip of the rhetorical tongue, she added, “Her parents let her attend school like that. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to create some areas where students can be safe in school and show up in proper attire so what happened in Texas doesn’t happen to our students.”
Federal Judge James Leon Holmes once wrote of pregnancies via rape: “Concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.”
Representative Henry Aldridge (R-North Carolina) said in 1995: “The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.” Calls for him to produce the “medical authorities” resulted in none. Confronted on the initial comment, Aldridge responded, “To get pregnant, it takes a little cooperation. And there ain’t much cooperation in a rape.”
#4: Regarding the idea — reflected in Rep. Aldridge’s comment above — that pregnancy happens only when a woman experiences an orgasm, there is an additional falsehood I will only briefly mention. Orgasms during rape are rare, but can involuntarily occur during even the most vicious rape. I won’t dwell on that, other than as a refutation to the idea that the female body will always respond as one might expect it to. A victim’s sense of guilt over such matters, if experienced, is misplaced; she should receive counseling if guilt feelings persist. But — again — orgasm is not necessary for impregnation to occur. This idea is without scientific basis.
#5: Is the Pro-Life Movement Committing Suicide by supporting such theories? As a pro-lifer myself, but also as someone who strongly believes in cases of rape and incest the decision really really really belongs in the hands of the victim and those she relies on as her safety net, I fear recent years have seen terrible damage done to the pro-life cause… by Pro-lifers themselves.
Dr. John Willke, once President of National Right to Life and currently heading Life Issues Institute, may turn out to have been the primary resource relied upon by Akin and other politicians and pundits promoting the “rape doesn’t make women pregnant” narrative. As the New York Times points out, Willke was cited as recently as yesterday by defenders of Akin. In 1999, Willke wrote an article called “Rape Pregnancies Are Rare,” and among other things said this:
First, let’s define the term “rape.” When pro-lifers speak of rape pregnancies, we should commonly use the phrase “forcible rape” or “assault rape,” for that specifies what we’re talking about.
This “addition equals subtraction” language usage should by now be familiar. Rape is rape. When words are added in front of the word “rape,” the manipulation of meaning is occurring. The problem with “forcible” and “assault” as prefixes for “rape” is that they completely overlook the perspective and experience of the person most pertinent to such discussions — the woman who is raped. Men should not be controlling the language of rape!
My own wife was nearly raped at least two different times as a single woman. In one, she ended up alone on a road with her dress torn, then went to work the next day to find the man who had perpetrated the attempted rape joking and laughing openly about his attempt to their fellow employees. She was tremendously impacted by that experience, an attempted rape that failed only because she was quick enough to leap from the car and run.
My wife and I have a friend who was less fortunate. I won’t tell her story here because it is hers to tell. But I will say that virtually every time I’ve heard her tell it — and tell it she does — I’m undone by it. Rape is a horror, not only to its direct victims but also to all those who love the women (and men) raped. As someone with this feminist sensibility, and I don’t praise myself for it but rather the many women around me, I cannot walk together with a “pro-life” movement which defines rape in ways convenient to that movement’s goals.
What is force? Who gets to define “force”? Who, for that matter, gets to define “rape”? You see, men are the ones who usually get to do these things. Most politicians are men. Most preachers are men. Many shapers of language are men.
Rape is a male-defined phenomenon. And I suggest that it is time for women to tell men what rape is rather than the other way around.
But Willke continues his diminution of the “mere” rape by creating yet another category, the “assault rape”:
Factor in what is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that’s physical trauma. Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.
As noted earlier, we do in fact know that the stress and horror of the rape — whether an “assault” rape or simply rape — does NOT prevent pregnancy. There is no science whatever behind Willke’s unsupported assertions regarding rape and pregnancy. He cites various numbers but in curious moments also admits “we don’t know.” Actually, we DO know.
Rape is rape. And women do, in too many cases, become pregnant as a result of rape.
As a Christian feminist pro-life advocate, I suggest the first thing we must do (particularly if male) is to listen to the victims of rape. If we are going to appeal to women pregnant via rape to keep their children, I have a simple idea. Let’s start by immediately surrendering. That is, let’s tell such a woman that we cannot know the pain she is in. We cannot know the torturous nature of the decision she faces. We do not believe it is our place to tell her what she should do. We do not believe that her choosing to end the unborn’s life is a sin, though it is a tragedy. We do not believe that abortion is always in all circumstances wrong. We do not believe that she is compelled to keep her child.
Further, we are willing to walk with her no matter her choice. We will mourn the rape with her and we will mourn with her the “Sophie’s Choice” nature of what to do about her pregnancy. We will go to the clinic with her if that is her choice. And, if she should choose the hard road of bearing the child, we will walk that road with her in every way we can materially, psychologically, and spiritually.
Some will say I’m not a pro-lifer to say such things. I hope in God’s eyes I am, but will leave that to his judgement.
But there is one more word to say, and this only in light of the last few paragraphs. I speak without any authority whatever in what follows. But I know a woman, a gentle and good and faithful woman who has lived a life of service and love toward others. She is the product of a rape. Her life has meaning despite how it began. And this entire topic is one that is as painful for her as it likely is for the victims of rape. She is a person.
So, though I do not believe that any law should force a woman to bear a child conceived by rape, and though I also do not believe a woman automatically sins by ending such a pregnancy, I would only ask that anyone reading this also remember my friend who came into existence because of a rape.
I think of my wife. I think of our friend who, unlike my wife, did not escape the savagery that convulsed her life. And I think of our other friend, whose life began in the midst of one of the ugliest and most brutal acts one human being can perpetrate upon another. All three of these women haunt me.
So after all my words… I listen. To the women.
* Links to Rape Resources & Women’s Stories *
Two phone numbers: CHICAGO RAPE CRISIS HOTLINE* 1-888-293-2080 RAINN HOTLINE** 1-800-656-HOPE
The second number is a national rape crisis number which should connect the caller to the nearest rape center available to them.
Sexual Violence, a Victim’s Resource page (University of Chicago); if anyone happens on this page and is a victim new or old of rape, this is a good starting place. I’ve linked to the “Emergency” page, but other pages and topics can be found along the left-hand margin once you’ve opened the link.
One overview of Pregnancy and Rape aimed at those actually dealing with it, the victims: “Rape and Pregnancy” (Pandora’s Box)
Rape Victim Advocates is a network of professionals and volunteers whose mission is to aid victims of sexual assault all through the process, from immediately following the rape through the days, months, and perhaps years afterward.
JPUSA Member Sarah Sullivan’s “Threads of Compassion” has gone global. A survivor of rape herself, she remembers one of the worst parts of the post-rape experience being the silence of those around her. Threads of Compassion’s central idea is incredible simple: “Threads of Compassion is a loosely connected group of survivors of sexual violence who desire to offer comfort and support to recent victims. The idea is simple. Anyone whose life has been affected by sexual assault or abuse is welcome to knit or crochet a scarf which in turn will be given to a victim of sexual violence when they enter the hospital for emergency treatment.” Click to join or to start up your own chapter.
Women’s Stories and Reflections
(I’ve made no attempt to ‘vet’ the below for political correctness of any kind):
Renee Devesty: “I Got Pregnant from Rape” (Salon)
Shauna Prewitt: “Open Letter to Todd Akin from a Woman Who Got Pregnant from Rape” (XOjane.com) – This from a woman who, after becoming pregnant by rape, carried the baby to term and raised it as her own. And Ms. Prewitt today has posted an expanded first person piece for CNN.com, “Raped, Pregnant, and Ordeal Not Over.” As a result of her rape and child, Shauna pursued a legal career and is involved in changing laws that currently (so hard to believe this, but true!) allow rapists visitation rights to children conceived due to their crime.
In what I can only call an irony, here’s a pro-life page of women’s stories which by existing disproves Mr. Akin’s assertions, “Pregnant by Rape Stories.”
A long and far-ranging discussion among women on “If you were raped and pregnant, what would you do?” First-hand stories, many shared anonymously; the thread seems to have a pro-life tilt.
Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” currently works among rape victims and writes “Dear Mr. Akin, I Want You to Imagine…” Ms. Ensler’s take is a classic pro-choice one.
Numerous edits to both the article and the links….