Missouri Congressman (and Senate candidate) Todd Akin (R-MO) made a rather large and embarrassing mistake over the weekend. Except, the error was not in the substance of his reprehensible remarks about rape and pregnancy. Yes, his idiotic, uninformed, ignorant statement that somehow women who are legitimately raped cannot get pregnant is ridiculously wrongheaded and offensive. His real mistake was in actually opening a window into the unsettling mindset of conservative extremists who’ve become the face, heart, and soul of the 21st Century GOP.
Congressman Akin is far from a lunatic fringe outlier in the Republican party these days. In fact, his beliefs have become rather mainstream within the party, and will likely form several planks of the Republican platform when it is revealed next week during the convention.
Even when a Republican politician doesn’t actually believe that a zygote is a person with all the rights accorded any U.S. citizen, or that women have magical anti-pregnancy hormones that activate when they are “forcibly” raped, they better not admit it…or else! Or else…risk losing the seats to a truer believer.
It is the willingness to turn a blind eye to the extremists that might actually lead us some day (perhaps sooner than we think) into a society where not only abortions, but IUDs and most birth control pills are outlawed as murder weapons (and even miscarriages caused by “recklessness” could be considered murder).
If you don’t think that’s possible, have a gander at the Federal Personhood Amendment co-sponsored by Akin and presumptive Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Personhood, according to the failed piece of legislation, begins at fertilization. It’s a very short bill, but its implications are far-reaching; its potential for harm, great. When a zygote becomes a “person,” its intentional destruction is deemed murder. IUDs, many forms of birth control, even in-vitro fertilization (not to mention embryonic stem cell research) would all be potentially homicidal.
Most people believe this amendment or one like it has little to no chance of making it into law, either on the federal level or in the states (so far, all attempts have failed). But the more power gathered by the far right, the harder it will be for the shrinking saner wing of the Republican Party to “say no.” They’ll either give up (like Olympia Snowe, R-ME), be defeated (like Richard Lugar, R-IN), or live in perpetual fear of groups like Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council and other Values Voters Summit groups (Scott Brown, R-MA).
But to avoid frightening the masses (read: independents), lunatic thinking like Akin’s (and Ryan’s) has been kept largely in the closet, to be brought out only for rallies and fundraising. But Akin’s ridiculous remarks, which bring into high relief a staggering breadth of ignorance (does he also believe that the stork delivers babies?), seem so “out there” that the Republican party leadership is shocked! Simply shocked! They are practically stumbling over each other to throw the Senate candidate under the bus, giving him until 5:00 p.m. tonight to “reconsider” his candidacy.
But what Akin said is not at all shocking to anyone familiar with the “right to life movement.” He certainly didn’t pull this magic rape birth control idea out of his…I mean, thin air. No, indeed.
This argument goes back more than 30 years, and has been used by politicians before (and has meant instant political death to them), but in 1999, John C. Willke, M.D., former head of the National Right to Life Committee, and current president of both the International Right to Life Federation and the Life Issues Institute, published a paper that tried to give statistical underpinnings to the oft-told anti-abortion argument that rape pregnancies are “as rare as snow in Miami.”
“First, let’s define the term ‘rape,’” begins Willke’s paper. Urging activists to always use the terms “forcible rape” or “assault rape” when speaking of this horrendous act of violence against women, Willke distinguishes between those types of rape (perhaps what Akin meant when he used the word “legitimate”), and what only can be assumed as Akin’s “illegitimate” forms of rape like statutory rape or drugged rape.
Willke then makes the assertion Akin used: “Assault rape pregnancies are extremely rare,” acknowledging that although most anti-abortionists know this argument, they’d never had actual facts to back it up. He cited a political race in Arkansas in which a candidate used the “rare” argument (as had so many others before him), suffering ridicule and criticism in the media. “Unfortunately,” says the paper, “there was no evidence that he offered substantive proof to back up his claim that rape pregnancies were rare.”
Willke goes on to cite a bunch of nonsensical statistics that seek to explain that the physical trauma of “forcible” rape (isn’t that tautological?) alters a woman’s hormonal and emotional balance, thus preventing pregnancy almost always. (With no acknowledgement that the opposite, also driven by hormones, can happen, of course!)
In the past, as these tidbits of extreme ignorance (whether from Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, or Donald Trump) seeped out into the mainstream media, it’s been easy to call them out as gaffes or fringe statements to be ignored by intelligent, sane people of both parties. But it’s become so very clear, especially since 2010, that these guys have power, mean business, and mean to take us back in time on every possible socially progressive move this country has taken over the last 60 years. That’s what they mean when they cry out “take back America.” Women’s issues, separation of Church and State, civil rights, worker rights, voting rights, education, environmental issues: that’s what this election is about. The choice could not be clearer come November.
Personally, I hope Akin stays in the race. I hope the media doesn’t let go of this issue (not for the slip of the lip, but for the deeper and more serious issues it raises about women and the GOP’s regressive anti-intellectualism). For too long the crazies (or as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) calls them, “knuckle draggers”) have been given a pass as fringe personalities to be ignored in the hope that they’ll simply go away. They won’t.
If nothing else, Akin’s remarks may have had the positive effect of letting voters see and perhaps understand what’s in store if the Akins of the world accumulate more power. It is only by understanding that voters can begin to have a clue of exactly what’s at stake in November at all levels of the ballot: from President of the U.S. to president of the local school board.