US Representative Todd Akin, R-MO (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
The Twittersphere went nuts yesterday after a video was posted of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin expressing some jaw-dropping views on rape and abortion in an interview with local news:
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The short-term consequences of such an incendiary remark are predictable: Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill will trumpet the remark to her own political advantage, donations will spike to her campaign and the party committees will offer the remark as one more proof point of the GOP’s war on women. But the impact of Akin’s effort to redefine the terms of this debate reaches beyond this one race. In the multidimensional chess that shapes public opinion, the game is less about individual elections and more about a sustained effort to mainstream radical ideas. In the case of denying women control over their lives, there’s evidence that the bad guys may be winning the long-game.
Akin was Paul Ryan’s co-sponsor on a House bill just last year banning the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of “forcible rape.” This term seemed laughably redundant since all rape, by definition, is forced. But this redefinition of rape was deceptively sinister. Statutory rapists often use coercion but not physical force. If the measure had passed, a 13-year-old emotionally manipulated into having sex with an older friend or relative would no longer be able to use Medicaid to terminate a resulting pregnancy. Nor would her parents be able to use their tax-exempt health savings fund.
While the measure was defeated, conversation around it introduced skepticism about whether all rape is created equal and what distinctions should be recognized by law. Instead of making him politically toxic, Ryan’s support of the pioneering forcible rape measure likely made him a more attractive vice presidential candidate to a Romney campaign needing to energize the right-wing base.
And whether or not Akin loses this cycle, his comments have already escalated the stakes. In his world view, the rape victim’s body will be the ultimate judge of whether a crime has taken place. If she gets pregnant, by Akin’s standard, her reproductive organs consented to the pregnancy, so she must have consented to the sex. This bizarre standard of innocence is reminiscent of medieval Europe, where the men in authority held the similarly scientific view that women guilty of witchcraft floated in water while innocent women would drown. Being cleared of witchcraft was of course not much consolation to the drowned women, though they at least got to skip being burned at the stake.