Todd Akin: "Legitimate rape" stops pregnancy

Sen. Claire McCaskill's GOP opponent says "the female body has ways to try to shut down that whole thing"

Published August 19, 2012 8:20PM (EDT)

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Missouri Senate hopeful Todd Akin said in an interview Sunday, explaining why his ideal abortion ban wouldn't include an exception for rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he added.

Akin is a Republican currently leading Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, by 8 points. But McCaskill's advantage on the matter at hand includes not only being presumably less ignorant of female bodies than Akin, but also -- and this part is certain -- opposing the punishing and draconian policies around those bodies, the same ones Akin was defending in that interview. "As a woman & former prosecutor who handled 100s of rape cases, I'm stunned by Rep Akin's comments about victims this AM," McCaskill tweeted Sunday afternoon.

Michael Kinsley famously defined a gaffe as "when a politician tells the truth -- some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say." This election season, Republican politicians have offered a variation on this principle: They're getting in trouble for saying some obvious truth about what they actually believe about women, baring the ignorance, contempt and cruelty therein instead of pretending this is about protecting women or babies.

Akin happens to have exemplified all three, with a special emphasis on ignorance, when he was asked,  “So just to be clear, though, you would like to ban the morning-after, totally for everyone?” Akin replied, “I think that’s a form of abortion, and I don’t support it.” Akin is free to "think" anything he wants, but he's wrong on the science -- just as he was with his ideas about "legitimate rape," with one study estimating over 32,000 pregnancies from rape in a given year. Does Akin think those pregnancies -- predominantly in adolescents who had been assaulted by a "known, often related perpetrator" -- didn't involve "legitimate rapes"?

The terrifying truth is that there's so much more at stake here than gaffes and ridicule and fact-checking. We're talking about pregnancies from rape because we're talking about Republicans who want to ban all abortion, always, starting with later pregnancies and proceeding as soon as possible to the unimplanted fertilized egg, and who are writing bills as such. We're talking about lawmakers who are ready to believe that women habitually lie about rape, and for whom the moderate position is now thinking that only women who are preyed upon in dark alleys deserve to belatedly have autonomy over their bodies.

Another study found that as many as 22,000 of 25,000 pregnancies resulting from rape in a given year could have been prevented by access to emergency contraception -- the same pill that Akin wants to universally ban. That, too, is a matter of latter-day policy debate, as we learned when the Obama administration capitulated to people like Akin by declining to make it over the counter for everyone, including those adolescents who might not want to ask their dads, stepfathers or uncles to take them to a doctor for a prescription.

Akin may be unlucky that his "gaffe" took place at an electorally acute moment, but he is by no means alone. He's only saying, with meme-worthy clumsiness, what underlies pretty much every restriction on reproductive rights. Previous greatest hits include Pennsylvania governor's blithe recommendation that women close their eyes during mandatory ultrasounds before abortion, the Idaho legislator who suggested women would use rape as an excuse to have an abortion, and Rush Limbaugh's misogynistic comments on Sandra Fluke inadvertently revealing he doesn't understand how birth control works. If so many of these comments manifest total illiteracy about biology, well, let's not forget these people's position on sex education.

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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Abortion Claire Mccaskill Missouri Rape Todd Akin