Asked by a reporter if he supported abortion in the case of rape, Congressman Todd Akin replied with his now infamous quote:
“It seems to me, 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 that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”
In those few sentences Congressman Akin managed to offend in not just one but three very different ways:
- He implies that there are legitimate and non-legitimate rapes.
- He claims that pregnancies resulting from rape are rare.
- He doesn't seem to emphasize punishment.
And while most of the political world was quick to shun him, with even his closest allies calling for him to drop his bid for re-election, I can't help but feel annoyed by the mindlessly reactionary responses. I'm no friend to Republicans, I disagree with most of the claimed conservative values, but I am no more a friend to the Democrats and progressives when they seem unable to look at things rationally and instead seek refuge behind politically correct positions and chants.
I don't think most congressmen belong in congress, and I see no reason to think any differently of Congressman Akin, but that doesn't mean I find his statements worse than they are.
Let's take a look at Congressman Akin's offenses in turn.
Congressman Akin's statement about legitimate rapes does certainly imply there must exist illegitimate rapes. Most of the furor surrounding this quote seems to rest on this point. But while I understand that his statement could suggest the disgustingly archaic viewpoint that women invite, allow, or invent almost all of the sexual assault they report, it seems far more reasonable to imagine he meant only to exclude those who fit this last criteria. A congressman could make a statement like, "If it's a legitimate robbery then this bill will force the insurance companies to pay up." without anyone getting even remotely upset. It acknowledges the existence of the same phenomena, false reporting of a crime. His poorly phrased statement seems to be trying to address his response at the (majority of) cases where rape was not falsely claimed.
The reality is that some percentage of all reported crimes are wholly false, the alleged criminal act did not occur at all. The heinous crime of rape is not immune to this deceit. A few studies have been done to try to determine what percentage of rapes are false but to date there are no universally accepted statistics. Frequently mentioned statistics seem to range anywhere from 2% to 12%. The most common figure I've seen on sites supporting women's causes is roughly 6%. The Violence Against Women journal included a study based on a thorough review of college rape investigations and puts the number of false allegations at 5.9%, as mentioned in this blog entry of the title False Rape Allegations Are Rare. I've seen many quotes from people on the left saying exactly the same thing, that false claims of rape are "rare". "Rare" is the key word here, as they are applying it to something which they agree happens roughly 6% of the time.
The phrase "illegitimate rape" should clearly never be uttered because it offends and is taken with historical context to de-legitimize those who have been raped. But we must as honest men and women acknowledge that a small percentage of rape claims are not true, and must allow others to acknowledge this fact as well, and be able to refer to them in discussion, even when it involves charged topics like abortion. We cannot simply shout down our adversaries for poor phraseology, those are the chief argumentation tactics of the Rush Limbaughs and the Howard Sterms.
As an aside, I was stunned when I first learned that ~6% of rape accusations were wholly false. The figure is touted by women as a positive, as though the number was impressively low, which is likely because of the historical context of the public apparently believing that most rape allegations are false. But I grew up assuming that 99.9% of rape allegations were true, not comprehending that anyone could or would make up such a thing, and so for me to discover that 6% were false was shocking and vastly more than I would have ever imagined.
Pregnancies from Rapes are Rare
Congressman Akin's claim that women's bodies have some mechanism by which it can prevent unwanted fertilization of an egg is not supported by science or medicine. While many wish to see it as an evil statement, born of a desire to blame the woman should she become pregnant, such an explanation is not required. It may be plain but unremarkable ignorance.
What I find most infuriating about the anger at Todd Akin is that it suggests that all those condemning him know so very much better, and I am very sure most of them do not! Those pillorying him may assume better, may have guessed better, or may just know better how to toe the politically correct party line, but very likely most of them are no more scientifically or medically informed or grounded.
Considering first exactly what he said we find rank hypocrisy coming from many of his accusers. His claim (leaving out for a moment his incorrect explanation) is that pregnancy as a result of rape is rare. And in that he is correct if we use the definition of "rare" that all those who are most vitriolic towards Akin are. Various studies have strongly suggested that 5 - 8% of women who are raped become pregnant as a result. If we consider that many advocates for women argue that false rape accusations are rare at 6% then surely we would expect them to consider pregnancy as a result of pregnancy at 5-8% to be a similarly rare occurrence. If they did, however, this aspect of Congressman Akin's comment would not be worth mentioning. To have useful discussions and dialogue we must be consistent in our use and interpretation of language, to make language or math political is idiocy.
But let's look at his erroneous explanation of why pregnancy from rape is rare. Taken at its core his statement requires that women are less likely to become pregnant as a result of rape than consensual sex. On this point he seems proven entirely wrong, studies have only suggested the opposite. But his (and others') expectation that rape would be less likely to produce pregnancy is easily explained, logical, and almost certainly the common belief until recent studies began to show otherwise. There are many objective reasons to suspect rape would be less likely to result in pregnancy. I am sure most of his attackers are no better read on the available studies than he was. As such, lets consider not his logic, which apparently depended on only one particular doctor's viewpoint, but on the overall expectation which exists to draft most people's expectations. Included in these facts:
- Rapists often do not ejaculate. While exact numbers are hard to come by I saw some things which said that only 10% of the time was semen recoverable from rape victims, meaning the attacker did not ejaculate, withdrew before ejaculating, or wore a condom.
- Rapists use condoms as often as 10-15% of the time.
- Stress is widely believed to increase miscarriages and many have assumed stress hormones would interfere with conception, implantation, and fetal development. Rape marks the beginning of a long and horribly stressful journey back to any sort of normal.
- Rape is (generally) a single event, relatively short in duration, whereas consensual sex is more likely to be prolonged and repeated.
Taking just the above objective facts a reasonable person would conclude that pregnancy as a result of rape should occur much less often than from consensual un-protected intercourse. And if we know that the average likelihood that a woman will become pregnant as a result of unprotected consensual sex is 5% then surely many reasonable people would estimate a rape would result in pregnancy at a rate one order of magnitude less than with consensual sex.
That "reasonable" guesstimate happens to be wrong, as has been established in studies, but the conclusion was not the result of stupidity. There were, however, some key factors that were overlooked:
- Rapists more often prey on victims during their most fertile years, so the overall rate of pregnancy from one incident of intercourse within that age range is higher than 5%, making pregnancy from rape also higher.
- Unknown evolutionary forces might be at play giving aggressive males an advantage at fertilizing women. This is wildly speculative, but has been offered as one possible explanation for what otherwise seems unexpected. No studies I'm aware of support this as yet.
I don't want to discourage people from trying to understand the world in which they live using the facts available to them. We should not call the conclusions people come to nor the people themselves "stupid" as a result of a genuine attempt to figure things out as best they can. People are only stupid when they choose to ignore facts which might have otherwise altered their positions.
Todd Akin is no more nor less intelligent than most of his detractors, no more or better informed. We must be able to present him with new evidence and only deem him worthy of contempt if he fails to update his view based on superior evidence.
Punishing the Rapists
When I heard the offensive quote what offended me the most was in fact the last part of the oft repeated quote. He seems to show so little interest in the prosecution of the guilty. "I think there should be some punishment..." sounds so anemic, as though he feels forced to grudgingly acknowledge some mild punishment is expected. His statement is something I'd expect a disinterested father saying to a supermarket cashier after his child was caught with a pack of gum he didn't pay for. If I were of a mind to be outraged by my interpretation of the first part of his quote then this line would absolutely be the nail in the coffin for me. Not only does he seem to think many victims deserved what happened to them, not only does he not acknowledge the problem of further traumatizing victims and populating the planet with children born from violence, but he proves he doesn't think it's a real crime by barely conceding that any punishment is warranted. I likely am reading way too much into this portion of his statement, but in part that's my point. Others who found this quote offensive were apparently willing to give this part of his statement a pass, assuming he really meant something different, or at that this wasn't the worst of what he said, when for me it was. I have yet to hear anyone even mention this part of the quote in the discussion.
Rape is in no way to be tolerated, and I cannot fathom how our legal system permits the freeing of those who are found guilty of heinous crimes such as rape, molestation, kidnapping, murder, etc. In my view, society should be forever protected from people who have demonstrated certain criminal tendencies. Having felt the intense violation and fear that comes from being a victim of far lesser crimes, I can only begin to dimly imagine the horror one might feel as a result of this sort of sexual assault. I do not support Todd Akin or anyone espousing archaic views about women, sexuality, gender, etc. I just want to ensure that all of us can communicate about these topics, can freely discuss them without the ignorant, knee-jerk politics or political correctness that only entrenches people further in their ignorance. Only through that openness is there any hope for them or for us.
I've always been frustrated by what feels like the often perverted goal of feminism. Feminism should be (I think) the struggle for equality (in opportunity, in treatment, etc.). We should ALL (intelligent, forward thinking males and females) be that sort of feminist. Too often, though, feminism (the term as used by various groups and individuals) feels reactionary and unequally anti-male.
One of the problems is that certain issues are improperly linked to the feminist movement, such as the requirement that abortion be available. Fetal rights may historically have something to do with women's rights but as a legal, philosophical, biological matter there is (or should be) no relationship. A fetus is either a life deserving the equal constitutional protection afforded all other human life or it is not. If it is deserving then any woman's input is irrelevant and any abortive action is logically prohibited. If it is not deserving then women can do as they like. The problem is that the feminist movement knows the answer they want and are thus unwilling to solve the problem they actually have. Their position is that for women to be equal, for them to have the same opportunities as men, women must not be saddled with the burden of unwanted children. They know the only guaranteed solution to this problem is abortion (prophylactics being limited in effectiveness and unwanted sexual assault always being a possibility). But again, the answer to when legally-protected life begins cannot be guided by personal, political, or religious motives.
The problem is that the feminist movement seems to overlook the fact that balancing any equation can be done not merely by altering one side of the equation, but by altering both sides. Equality for women does not require that abortion be available, altering the other side of the equation can achieve the same equality through the reduction of men's rights.
For example, let's say a female high school student aged 15 is impregnated by a 17 year old high school student. The feminist argument is that the 15 year old is unequally punished by the pregnancy because her future (statistical) chances of a full, rich life are diminished as a result of (among other things) difficulty completing high school, difficulty proceeding on to college, and resultant difficulty in forming her career. Rather than solving the problem of equality in this scenario through abortion society could instead impose similar restrictions on the male involved, ensuring that his future is put equally at risk. Not content to merely ensure the equal damage of both parties, society could pursue a course by which both parties improve their individual and collective chances through action. One such approach might make the father of any newborn perform X hours of public service and/or pay Y dollars per week (meant to roughly equal the physical/financial demands on the mother). This legal demand on the father would be mitigated by the degree to which he meaningfully alleviates the burdens (associated with this child) on the mother. The public service could be a civil works program, government/corporate labor for societal benefit, ideally one in which the human labor generates real dollars, so as not to be a financial burden on the government. This 17 year old father may be required to perform 45 hours a week of public service for the child's first two years of life (altered after that to reflect the changing impact on the mother). If he takes exclusive or shared (with shared responsibility) care of the child for 20 hours a week then his public service debt is reduced accordingly to 25 hours a week. He may alternatively provide monetary support to reduce those hours. If he refuses to work those hours or pay in lieu of those hours, he is jailed until he is willing to participate. The mother, along with involved parties and a child welfare agency, determines the volume and quality of the father's participation.
Creating the appropriate civil works program and the oversight agencies involved would be no small matter; this particular approach may be wholly unrealistic. The primary purpose of my mentioning the specifics of a solution is to show that there are in fact available alternatives which can secure equality between men and women. The failure to explore, examine, pursue these solutions, by the feminist movement, reflects odd unilateral, ulterior motives which have no place in a society struggling to be free of our inherited, short-sighted prejudices.
In preface to what I'm about to say, let me disclose that my opinion on the topic of abortion is complicated. Essentially my position is a big I don't know.
While I do feel like the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the health care bill currently travelling through the senate is in part a sneaky Republican ploy to further their anti-abortion agenda (as well as genuine indignation/moral stand), the Democrats can't win passage of the bill without an amendment like Stupak-Pitts, and I don't think a fight over it is worth derailing health care reform.
The Republicans are not wholly unreasonable in their desire to keep public funds from funding something they find morally objectionable, though they would certainly scoff at the notion of giving the many democrats (and universal pacificists) a similar way out of having their tax dollars used to fund wars they find equally morally objectionable.
The Democrats are not wholly unreasonable in wanting to take a moral stand on this point, in not wanting access (particularly to those in need and most vulnerable) to a legal procedure (abortion) curtailed. They see it as a dangerous concession, to those now in need, and those in the future, this being perhaps the thin end of the wedge.
Perhaps I'm a realist, but I believe health care needs immediate reform, and that universal health care is a right, integral to our ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. I believe we have no better chance than now to see universal health care put in place, and that sacrifices must be made to see that happen.
The bottom line is that the Stupak-Pitts ammendment would mean that an abortion would be an out of pocket expense. A little googling suggests an abortion costs $300 - 400 done < 3 months and $400 - 1200 < 5 months (above that prices go up quite a bit). I may be naive, and may not adequately appreciate the likelihood that people would once again resort to back alley abortions, but it doesn't seem like those prices are so high that people who wanted abortions would not pay out of their pocket to get them. I had assumed most abortions were currently out of pocket expenses. Regarding the abortion cost and someone's ability to pay, giving birth would incur a much greater expense (out of pocket) in the first month alone (food, baby supplies, etc.), so if you can work out the financing for the latter, surely you could work it out for the former. And regarding access, I wouldn't expect that this change would impact those concerned about young teens having access to abortions without parental knowledge, since I wouldn't have thought teens could get this done without parental involvement now via health insurance. (I can imagine this legislation and our tendency to take capitalism to its extremes might usher in a new age of multi-momth abortion financing plans. )
I do take the point that this legislation would prevent insurance companies from offering a separate option for abortion insurance coverage if that insurance company is taking federal dollars, and I do find that to be the strongest argument, yet it still comes back to the same thing, will this change significantly change people's access to abortions? I don't see that it would
Admittedly I am used to having a PPO and paying for lots of things that aren't covered (or in full) by my health care plan, and I am fortunate enough to have had the money to pay for those things. And I am neither pro-life nor pro-choice, so I may be missing important realties here.
This is based on a letter I recently wrote to a friend following a discussion we had on the topic of abortion. It's a rough sketch of my position.
I'll start in reverse, stating my conclusion, then explaining it. The short answer is, I think both sides have it very wrong. I think both sides have agendas which have nothing to do with the real issue. At this instant in time, with the technology we have currently available, with the ethical issues as they now exist, I do not believe it can be established that abortion is either moral or immoral. I do not want Roe v. Wade overturned, but neither am I certain it is right. I do not know what the answer is, but I feel that the answers both sides present (pro choice/pro life) are wrong. I would fight for, vote for, protest for alternative solutions which attempted to address the reasonable concerns of both sides, those being (in my estimation) maximizing a woman's equality/options/growth potential while doing everything possible to avoid the destruction of tissue that at some uncertain moment inherits the rights of a human.
The central and only real issue is, of course, when does "life" begin? Specifically, when does do the collection of cells go from having no rights to having the rights of a full person? That is the only issue. That issue is unrelated to religion, unrelated to feminism, unrelated to pre-existing law. If one is going to consider these issues, to try to find the truth, to find what's right (independent of one's desire, convenience, larger goals, etc.), it must be without the color of emotion and without the taint of agendas. It's what all good science strives to be about, avoiding personal bias, ignoring (or compensating for) the blindness of what one inherits culturally/socially, seeing the data only as it is, and discovering reality as it really is.
I do not believe there is any clear moment when a fertilized egg attains the rights of a human. That moment is not conception, not attachment of the zygote to the uterine wall, not formation of the fetal brain stem, not beginning of the heart beat, not viability with medical intervention, not viability without medical intervention, and maybe not even birth. But, at some point in the growth from >= 1 cell to <= 1+ billion cells it becomes universally believed to be morally wrong to destroy. I do not know when that point is. Anyone who says they do is arrogant, a liar, or overly simplifying the issue to satisfy their own personal agendas. The problem is, what does one do when you don't know if something is moral or immoral? To be 100% moral the only option is to err on the side of caution and not do that thing which may or may not be immoral. That is the only "safe" course. And I'm not talking about morals in a religious sense, I'm talking about morals in the sense of the atheist finding a wallet when no one is around and feeling the obligation to return the wallet, despite his own financial difficulties.
I'm not suggesting that doing something which may be immoral is the same as doing something which is immoral. This highlights our need to add punctuation or notation to the English language which can capture multi-state conditions seeing in the realms of logic and quantum mechanics. But neither can I explain how it's exactly different. Because it may or may not be. We cannot know. It's a subtle but important distinction. In a similar way, my vegetarianism is not based in my belief that eating animals is absolutely immoral (though I personally suspect it is, and have reason to logically believe that mankind's morals evolve as our environment evolves, and I can no longer morally justify my eating meat). I choose not eat meat because I believe it *may* be immoral, not because I believe it absolutely is; and my decision is therefore the only truly moral option for me in that situation, to play it safe, and not do the possibly immoral thing. All I can personally do is try to act out of an abundance of caution, and avoid doing something which may be immoral.
Now, if the only truly moral thing to do is avoid something which may be immoral does that mean I do not believe abortion is ever ok? The short answer is that I don't know. And since I don't feel I can have a strong opinion on that, given that I don't know, I'm not of a mind to tell people what they should do, try to legislate what they should do, judge them. (Technology and social progress/change will provide good alternative solutions in the future, which will alter the awkward ambiguity which now exists.) While I have no strong opinions now in general on this topic, I do have some in specific situations. If someone is using abortion as a method of birth control (as opposed to as a last resort when birth control fails), that position disappoints me and feels very wrong. If someone is getting an abortion and has thought about doing so with no more gravity (introspection/philosophizing) than they would having a wart removed, that position disappoints me and feels ignorant; I do not like people oversimplifying, ignoring inconvenient complexities, etc. I do not believe I have the right to stop even those people, but I will quietly (in my own head) strongly disagree with them.
I believe very much in the value of the thought experiment to get at the heart of what is really motivating people, what the issue really is, and what we can really do about it. And because many thought experiments show us what we'll have to confront and decide in the future. So here are some thought experiments which I think are interesting on this topic, and may reveal some people's real agendas.
- Imagine they could teleport an undesired fetus out of pregnant woman and teleport it into another woman; and that there were enough women who wanted impregnation. Would this be acceptable as the only alternative to abortion (excluding incest)?
- Imagine they could teleport an undesired fetus into a frozen/suspended state for future re-implantation into the same woman when/if she is prepared to re-receive it? Would this be an acceptable alternative to abortion?
- Imagine they could transfer the fetus to another woman or freeze it but only after developing for 3 months. Would this change reaction to the above?
- Imagine this teleportation to another woman or to a freezer existed, and that the pro choice movement accepted that. Would it be acceptable in the cases of rape/incest? (Is part of the issue the eradication of the physical trace/dna of the event/crime?)
- Imagine a future where everyone wears a device that monitors their body. This device could detect pregnancy instantly (the moment the egg implants itself). If the woman was then given 24 hours to decide if she wants the pregnancy or not, would that be accepted as the only solution? (What if the time was 36 hours, or 7 days. Would it be acceptable to severely restrict the decision time?)
- Imagine that babies were in demand (no need for foster homes, orphanages, etc.), that all babies placed up for adoption would quickly go to good homes. Further, let's imagine that there was no social stigma attached to a) early/unmarried/etc. sexual activity, b) no stigma attached to carrying and then giving a baby up for adoption (whether in high school, in a career, etc.). Would the pro choice movement accept carrying a child to term as the only solution? (Let's assume an exception for rape/incest.)
- Imagine a new drug comes out, Plan 0. It has no side effects, it has no risks associated with it, and once taken it is 100% impossible to become pregnant until one takes the antidote for it. It can be given to children as young as 10. The antidote would be freely available to all above the age of 18. The antidote require 3 free injections, once a month, to reverse the sterility. (To avoid anti-government concerns, you can assume the antidote's formula is widely known, and can be reproduced easily with commonly available, harmless and unrestrictable ingredients. Just inconvenient and difficult enough for most people to not be able to make.) Would the pro choice movement support giving this to all children at age 10?
Anyway, those are just a few... I could insert lots of others including some trying to establish the relative value of lives based on cell counts, intelligence, rights (and lack thereof) over one's body, etc.
I do not mean the above as merely idle and un-testable thought experiments, this isn't "You're driving at light speed and you turn on your headlights" stuff. My point with the above is that all of the above items could happen, the technological/medical options above will all be possible at some point in the future. And what will be our position when they are? Because how we react to them then says a lot about what the different groups truly believe now. And it's hard to have discussions now, come to solutions now, when people are making one argument, while secretly motivated by another argument. And that's what frustrates me about the way abortion is typically discussed, it's two irate and deeply entrenched groups with partially obscured agendas and grossly over-simplified arguments uselessly attacking each other and largely failing to unite and focus on what is a shared goal (reducing unwanted pregnancies); there's a place and a way to have the other arguments, but even those can be constructively done looking towards and trying to build a future in which both sides are satisfied.