Defining Away Rape

The Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta provides a very useful history of the frequency of and reasons for the kind of impolitic nonsense on abortion that got Todd Akin into so much trouble:

[H]is comments were hardly some kind never-before-heard gaffe. 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.

Indeed, it’s this bizarre claim that is at the heart of repeated efforts by conservative legislators at both the federal and state levels to limit “rape” exceptions to “forcible” rapes or some other such euphemism. Just last year GOP congressman and anti-choice warhorse Chris Smith of New Jersey was forced to drop language in a bill that supposedly made the Hyde Amendment (banning use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape and incest) permanent which would have redefined “rape” as “forcible.” In effect the there-are-no-real-rape-pregnancies rap is part of an ongoing effort to paper over differences in the anti-choice movement between those who are willing to risk extreme political peril in the pursuit of the most rigorous abortion bans, and those who aren’t–a compromise, if you will, between sincere fanatics and cynical opportunists.

The enduring significance of Akin’s “gaffe” (which meets the Kinsley Gaffe definition of an utterance that reveals the pol’s true feelings) may be to force anti-choicers in one direction or the other: towards the morally repugnant view that rape and incest victims need to be forced to carry pregnancies to term, and the morally inconsistent position that a zygote’s status and rights depend on the circumstances of its conception. Defining away rape won’t cut it any more.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.