Unless you've been hiding from everything electronic this week, you've heard about Rep. Todd Akin, a six-term Republican from Missouri, making comments about rape last weekend. In a nutshell, Akin said that if a woman was a victim of "legitimate" rape, she could not become pregnant.
That concept is a "canard that will not die," wrote Garance Franke-Ruta, senior editor at The Atlantic, characterizing it as the "contemporary equivalent of the early American belief that only witches float."
Franke-Ruta points that the idea is neither new nor without purpose for those who want to end legal abortions in the United States: "Arguments like his have cropped up again and again on the right over the past quarter century, and the idea that trauma is a form of birth control continues to be promulgated by anti-abortion forces that seek to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The push for a no-exceptions anti-abortion policy has for decades gone hand-in-hand with efforts to downplay the frequency with which rape- or incest-related pregnancies occur, and even to deny that they happen, at all. In other words, it's not just Akin singing this tune."
The implication is that a pregnant woman cannot also be the victim of trauma such as rape or incest, a theory that medical professionals have thoroughly debunked, including in a 1996 study published by the scholarly and peer-reviewed American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. That study, reports The New York Times, estimated "that 5 percent of rapes result in pregnancy."
"There are no words for this--it is just nuts," Dr. Michael Greene, a Harvard Medical School professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology, told the Times.
"To suggest that there's some biological reason why women couldn't get pregnant during a rape is absurd," Dr. David Grimes, a clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina told the Times.
In the wake of the firestorm following his comments (some of his own party members said he should resign), Akin sort of apologized for misspeaking. "I was talking about forcible rape," Akin told conservative radio host Mike Huckabee on the former Arkansas governor's talk show. "It was absolutely the wrong word."
But conservatives want to change the definition of rape by adding the word "forcible" to the laws. Republicans in the U.S. House unanimously passed the No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act in 2011, which narrowed the definition of rape specifically to restrict abortion in cases of statutory and incapacitated rape, where the victim may be drunk, drugged or otherwise incapable of giving consent.
Women's advocates say the word "force" is already a problem in many state rape statutes. "If the idea of consent is a sexual interaction obtained through force, it implies that a woman who does not fight back cannot be raped," said Michele Alexandre, an associate law professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, in a Jackson Free Press interview earlier this year.
"So even if the woman protests or says no or even fights back in some way, she might not have fought back hard enough," she added.
The word "force" means that a victim who is incapacitated will have a much more difficult time bringing a rapist to justice, as will those who have been lied to, such as children who may not understand the dynamic of rape and incest, or those who believe they have no choice but to submit to sex, such as women married to abusive men.
In a world where one in five women say they have been victims of sexual assault, and as few as six rapists in 1,000 will serve time for their crime, narrowing the definition of rape for ideological purposes may do more harm than good. Rape is not about sex; it is the ultimate expression of power and control that a perpetrator can inflict on a victim, as Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention, has said repeatedly.
As long as myths about rape fester, victims will remain silent.