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Real dialogue needed on rape

Rep. Todd Akin’s comments a missed opportunity for cultural and ethical debate

By Leigh E. Rich

These days, one has to feel some sympathy for politicians, political candidates, celebrities and others in the public eye. Modern media technologies and the proliferation of communication channels have created something of a Panopticon, where the relative ease of monitoring (and commenting incessantly on) what others say and do leads to a form of self-surveillance. When “gaffes” are made, however, the immediate—and pretty much only—responses in our culture fit into one of three camps: rushed, brief apologies by the wrongdoer that lack substance and, often, sincerity; a now not-so-unknown bait-and-switch PR tactic used to divert attention from the elephant in the room by “changing the conversation”; or exploitation of the repeated and replayed misstep by an opponent for personal or political gain.

In a society that prioritizes freedom of speech so much it is the First Amendment to the Constitution, it is disheartening that “engaging in real dialogue” doesn’t make this list.

Case in point: Much has been written about Missouri Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “off-the-cuff” comments about “legitimate rape” made two weeks ago, but little has actually been said.

And nothing has been discussed.

Of course, to do so, particularly in an election season with two months to go, would be so-called political suicide, and both main parties know it. This is the sad state of our paralyzed political and public discourse. Unfortunately, the strong words that have been used in response to Akin by Republican and Democratic candidates alike ring hallow and are—to repurpose the phrases of President Barack Obama, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—“offensive,” “beyond comprehension,” “insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong” in their silence.

None of the candidates or their allies actually wants to broach a real conversation about rape, pregnancy or abortion or the misappropriation of science and misunderstanding of history demonstrated in comments like those of Akin and both his supporters and detractors. The media also have shied away from this type of in-depth reporting, and much of what can be found in the press involves speculation about how such comments might affect the Missouri Senate race or the presidential election or whether Republicans are distancing themselves from Akin and Democrats using Akin purely for political gains. Very little discussion can be found—even by Democrats and groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Planned Parenthood—that either takes Akin to task for a stance that simultaneously disregards and relies on science or reprimands those who wish to shut down the potential for any dialogue about difficult moral questions.

As philosophers, bioethicists and other scholars know, understanding issues such as rape or abortion demand in-depth, nuanced, ongoing conversations in which the foundations of arguments and the biases of contributors are made known. This is why academic journals require researchers to provide a review of other studies, employ reasoned methodologies, discuss limitations, and disclose conflicts of interest. Such is the power of the scientific method, but there seems to be no room for this in politics or the media.

Oddly, Akin’s “foot-in-mouth” misstep provided an open door—but one, it seems, no one is willing to walk through.

Although press statements issued by the Romney and McCaskill campaigns both reference a 1996 American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology study that found that approximately 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year, this is the extent of the discussion of Akin’s declaration that “[i]f it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards did call Akin’s statement “ignorant,” but neither Planned Parenthood, NOW, or Democratic or Republican candidates have lingered on the lack or misuse of scientific evidence in Akin’s assertion.

If Akin were a teenager, this would have been the perfect invitation for his parents or teachers to launch, at the very least, a “birds and bees” talk.

The gist of Akin’s mea culpa, moreover, has focused primarily on how he “misspoke one word in one sentence on one day”—that of using the term “legitimate,” he says, instead of “forcible” to modify “rape.” The change—although phrasing that can be found in studies and governmental reports—does not rectify the error in the second part of his statement, nor does his brief apology elucidate or highlight the serious issue that is rape and sexual violence in the United States. What’s more, the responses by both critics and supporters have inadvertently or intentionally overlooked what should be cause for alarm, during an election and otherwise. If those 32,000 rape-related pregnancies that Romney and McCaskill reference account for 5.0 percent of rapes, this translates into 640,000 rapes among U.S. women per year. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey bears this out, reporting an estimated 620,000 incidents of “[c]ompleted forced penetration.” This does not include “[a]ttempted forced penetration,” “[c]ompleted alcohol/drug facilitated penetration,” “[s]exual coercion,” “[u]nwanted sexual contact,” or rape and sexual violence against men. Adding these in raises the incidence to more than two million.

Instead of issuing superficial rebukes or determining how misinformation could be used to get one’s own way, we, as a society, should have taken this opportunity to start these tough conversations—about rape and about abortion, among others.

The silence speaks volumes.

Politicians on both sides know they still need to court the “women’s vote.” The Republican Party can’t broach any real exchange—especially in relation to reproduction or rape—because its platform parallels Akin’s, which might give some women pause for thought. And Democrats simply won’t, because contemplative analysis about difficult issues doesn’t translate well into sounds bites—except for the other side.

Equally revealing about our culture and political system is how almost all involved, candidates and their allies alike, are afraid to align themselves with science to reproach Akin or refute his claims. Has science (and an understanding of the scientific method and philosophy) become something our legislators and other leaders think the citizenry will find, at best, boring and, at worst, offensive? On the other hand, no one is above taking on a simulacrum of science when it works to an advantage. Even Akin himself “justified” his statement by beginning it with: “From what I understand from doctors …” (emphasis added).

Perhaps politicians, advocacy groups and the press assume that Akin’s factual errors and inaccuracies are obvious or that his beliefs are those of a “fringe” that need not be noted, but less than a century ago the same could be said of eugenicists who employed a veneer of science to perpetrate the reprehensible “legal sham,” as law professor Paul Lombardo documents in his book Three Generations, No Imbeciles (2008), that was the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell. Couching an unethical social, political and economic agenda in terms of “public health and morality” and using or conducting their own shoddy “research” as “proof” that the “socially inadequate” should not be allowed to reproduce, eugenicists manufactured a legal precedent that not only enabled the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans but also influenced other countries, including Hitler and the Nazis. This occurred at a time when the “national [eugenics] movement was, if not dead yet, very weak” and “the brightest minds in the new field of genetics were turning their backs on the simple-minded conclusions of those who championed eugenic sterilization.”

While Akin does believe he is “working to protect the most vulnerable in our society,” his slipshod claims and our culture’s refusal to engage in real and messy conversations about these issues demonstrate that not much has changed since Buck (a case, shamefully, that has never been overturned).

Center stage a century ago as responsible for all manner of social ills, as Lombardo notes, was “problem women”—both those who were deemed “fit” but were having fewer children and, more importantly, those “unfit” whose “‘weak will power and deficient judgment’ made them ‘easily influenced for evil.’”

Likewise, Akin’s statement thinly masks a disdain for today’s “problem women” (for example, those who are raped) as well as a disregard, similar to the eugenicists, for any knowledge that might contradict his beliefs.

It also highlights our society’s ignorant, lazy and/or self-serving unwillingness to engage in the difficult dialogues ethical issues demand.

Instead of making use of and honoring our First Amendment, this “political blunder” has amounted to a suppression of speech, with many Republicans urging Akin to quietly bow out of the Senate race against McCaskill and many Democrats only willing to whisper about the sleeping elephant-of-an-issue.

Ironically, Akin is right about one thing: “Why couldn’t [Romney] run his race and I’ll run mine?”

He shouldn’t step down—but not because this might be a boon for the Dems.

Rather, allowing a candidate to run his own race—and run his mouth as he sees fit—could be a small (mis)step toward actual dialogue. 

Holmes, Melisa M., Heidi S. Resnick, Dean G. Kilpatrick, and Connie L. Best. 1996. Rape-related pregnancy: Estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 175(2): 320–325.

Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three generations, no imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. 2010. The national intimate partner and sexual violence survey: 2010 summary report. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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