Moderator’s note: This marvelous FAR site has been running for 10 years and has had more than 3,600 posts in that time. There are so many treasures that have been posted in this decade. They tend to get lost in the archives. We are beginning this column so that we can revisit some of these gems. Today’s blogpost was originally posted August 23, 2012. You can visit it here to see the original comments.
Just when you think you have heard it all, here we go again – another politician with “open mouth-insert foot” syndrome. Discussing his zero-tolerance policy for abortion, Missouri Representative Todd Akin made the following statement last Sunday about pregnancies that result from rape:
“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 on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
In an inadequate attempt to apologize and clarify his words, Akin stated that he meant to say “forcible rape.” This clarification fares no better nor does the fact that he later acknowledges that women “do become pregnant” during a “forcible rape.” It is interesting to note what Akin considers to be “rare.” According to the Washington Post, approximately 5% of rape victims become pregnant. Akin reduced this to a statistic – 1 out of 32,000 women. This, for Akin, is a rare occurrence.
Stating that a woman’s body is capable of preventing pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape” demonstrates how out of touch politicians are and further (re)affirms the bigotry that exists within our political system. The same politicians who have waived a “war against women” this year, try to promote policies that exercise control over what a woman can and cannot do with her body; policies that are based on ill-advised misinformation. Decisions politicians make for a woman – what she can and cannot do with her body – are rooted in personal faith beliefs, party-line agendas, and supporters (campaign financing dollars and lobbyists). This year, a woman’s body has become a platform for votes.
Inasmuch as I would like to think Akin’s statement is an isolated event, Garance Franke-Ruta points out that this is not the first time a politician made a statement about rape victims and pregnancies:
- 1980, Federal Judge James Leon Holmes (appointed by George W. Bush in 1984), stated, “concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.”
- 1988 Delaware Rep. Stephen Freind stated that “the odds that a woman who is raped will get pregnant are ‘one in millions and millions and millions” because “violent attacks cause temporary infertility.” – the trauma of rape causes women to ‘secrete a certain secretion’ that tends to kill sperm.”
- 1988 John C. Wilke, a physician and president of the National Right to Life Committee, categorized differnt types of “rape” in “Life Issues Connector;” forcible rape, assault rape, and statutory rape.
- In 1995 North Carolina State Rep. Henry Aldridge said: “The facts show that people who are raped – – who are truly rape – – the juice don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.”
- Earlier this year, Republican Sen. Chuck Winder stated that “I would hope that when a woman goes to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that’s part of the counseling that goes on.”
Why do candidates feel a need to define or categorize rape at all? According to Grace Fletcher-Hackwood, the definition of rape in “American politics” is just as “important in healthcare as well as in the justice system.” Republican efforts to limit federal funds to pay for abortions is the main reason; funding comes down to how the rape is categorized. Rape that results in a pregnancy has to be defined as “forcible” in order to receive federal money for an abortion. Types of rape that result in pregnancy not eligible for funding are: statutory rape, drug rape, rape of women with limited mental capacity.
While there are many categories of rape, one fact remains the same – rape is rape! Eve Ensler responds to Akin’s statement – “You use the expression ‘legitimate’ rape as if to imply there were such a thing as ‘illegitimate’ rape.” Rape is a violent crime. The discussion of legitimizing one definition of rape over another is simply absurd. Ensler also addressed Akin’s attempted clarification of his original statement:
“now you want to say that you misspoke when you said that a legitimate rape couldn’t get us pregnant. Did you honestly believe that rape sperm is different than love sperm, that some mysterious religious process occurs and rape sperm self-destructs to its evilcontent? Or, were you implying that women and their bodies are somehow responsible for rejecting legitimate rape sperm, once again putting the onus on us? It would seem you were saying that getting pregnant after a rape would indicate it was not legitimate?”
Any victim of rape would look at Akin’s words as something much more than a mere slur or mis-statement. These words belong to a person questioning the validity of rape or even “degrees” of rape (as if such a thing existed). His words put the responsibility on a woman who is raped – if she becomes pregnant, there was no rape. If she does not become pregnant, then her body functioned as it was designed to do, in the face of a violent traumatic event.
Ensler also stated:
“When you, Paul Ryan, and 225 of your fellow co-sponsors play with words around rape suggesting only ‘forcible’ rape be treated seriously as if all rapes weren’t forcible, it brings back a flood of memories of the way the rapists played with us in the act of being raped – intimidating us, threatening us, muting us. Your playing with words like ‘forcible’ and ‘legitimate’ is playing with our souls.”
This statement, according to Ensler, re-opens the wounds and memories that so many women who were victimized by rape – these words, this statement was a “form of re-rape.” His statement “delegitimizes and undermines and belittles the horror, invasion, desecration they experienced.” Women, who have been poked and prodded in the ER, questioned at length by police, faced her rapist at a trial (if he pleads not-guilty), all result in her rapist being convicted, are vindicated; she was just proved to be telling the truth, because the burden is on the victim. So let’s muddy the waters even more and state that ovulation or the inability to kill a rapist’s semen before fertilization raises the bar to infer reasonable doubt and thus vindicates the rapist.
Isn’t it bad enough that some states already compromise a woman if she decides to keep the baby that was conceived through rape? What I mean is the rapist can, in some cases, sue to be involved in the child’s life, which includes visitation privileges. Based on Akin’s definition or “understanding,” this woman should give the rapist privileges because there was no rape. These words cut through the very heart and soul of any rape victim.
With the ignorant ramblings of a politician, touting a zero tolerance for abortion because of a respect for the dignity of life, he, by his very words, has contradicted his stance. Pro-life and the understanding of what it means to be pro-life seems to be limited to the womb. So many of today’s issues, political and in the Catholic Church, rest on another definition – what “pro-life” means. However, it is very important for politicians and the Church to remember – the very definition of pro-life calls for respecting the dignity of all human persons from life to death. Akin’s statement has violated the dignity of women and devalued their personhood. By silencing their voice and restricting their rights, victims of rape are dehumanized. So Akin and people who think like him, thank you for imposing terror on so many women who, with your definitions and categories, now have to face horrible memories and nightmares of the past. Tell me, is this a respect for human life? Is this respecting the dignity of a human person? No – simply put it is bullying and terrorism. Your words have become a weapon and, like many of us were taught in childhood, words have consequences.
For Soraya Chemaly Akin’s statement, like so many statements that attack women, reflects “the degree to which some men, steeped in all sorts of dangerous denialism, will go to protect their power and how they undermine equality and democracy to do it.” At the end of the day, this is what our political system has become. Certainly this way of thinking, these words, reflect how out of touch politicians are with the people they stand to represent. In the end, what seems to be the driving force for these politicians is power and the question – how can I get more votes?
Chemaly states that Akin’s words feed into this continual “war on women” that seems to be occurring this election year. She also stated that fundamentally his words are “part of a reactionary, fundamentalist backlash to modernity. It’s war on science. It’s a war on facts. It’s a war on critical thinking. But, really, consider it a war on democracy.”
It is time; actually, it is long overdue for politicians to stop using women’s bodies as a political agenda. Sex without consent is rape. I agree with Ensler when she says – Stop trying to define rape; put your efforts toward ending it instead.
Articles cited in this post:
BIO: (From 2017) Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Her research and areas of focus are Religion, Cultural Identity and Memory Studies, Forced Migration and Exile, Cultural Heritage and Human Rights, Biblical Archaeology, Provenance of Antiquities and Art (including Nazi-Era Looting) and international dialogue surrounding the protection, conservation, and education of cultural heritage. She is the 2015 recipient of the P. E. MacAllister Excavation Fellowship where she participated in the Bethsaida Archaeology Project. Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). She wrote, “The Catholic Church and Social Media: Embracing [Fighting] a Feminist Ideological Theo-Ethical Discourse and Discursive Activism” in Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century, edited by Gina Messina-Dysert and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Find her website here.
Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, Catholic Church, Church Doctrine, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Human Rights, Identity Construction, LGBTQ, Rape Culture, Sexual Ethics, Sexual Violence, U. S. Catholic Sisters, Violence Against Women, Vowed Religious, Women's Agency, Women's Suffering