Todd Akin, come back! We miss you!

Republicans are quietly banning abortion for rape victims. Will only another big scandal deter them?

By Jill Filipovic

Published August 22, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Todd Akin             (Reuters/Sarah Conard)
Todd Akin (Reuters/Sarah Conard)

Last November, the Republican rape philosophers who used their campaign platforms to expound upon their creative theories about how the female body and sexual assault function suffered wide electoral losses. From Todd Akin, who suggested that, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," to State Representative Roger Rivard who declared that "some girls, they rape so easy" to Richard Mourdock who claimed that pregnancy after rape "is something God intended," men who emulated Tea Party star Sharron Angle's model of advising rape victims to turn a lemon situation into rape lemonade did not see their efforts rewarded by voters. The GOP could have learned an important lesson: Picking on rape victims, even in the context of abortion, doesn't play very well with the voting public.

Instead, the Republican party seems to have internalized the message that marginalizing rape victims is ok, as long as you don't brag about it.

Since January of this year, the overwhelming majority of abortion provisions introduced into state legislatures -- 86 percent -- apply to women who become pregnant as a result of rape. According to a report by the National Women's Law Center, of the 273 anti-abortion state provisions surveyed, 235 lacked exceptions for rape survivors. Of the 38 anti-abortion provisions that actually passed in the states, 27 did not include exceptions for women pregnant from rape. A few states even highlighted the absence of rape exceptions. One proposed ban on abortion in Mississippi stated, “The State of Mississippi shall not punish the crime of sexual assault with the death penalty, and neither shall persons conceived through a sexual assault be punished with the loss of his or her life.”

Strong majorities of Americans believe laws restricting abortion should offer exceptions for rape and incest. And there is something that feels particularly cruel about forcing rape survivors to carry pregnancies to term -- they've already been sexually violated, and it's easy to see how legally compelling them to continue an unwanted pregnancy resulting from their assault could compound the violation and the mental and physical damage the assault wrought. Many of the abortion restrictions introduced and passed would be particularly arduous for rape survivors: Requiring physically invasive ultrasounds, making women to listen to the fetal heartbeat, or forcing patients to sit through medically inaccurate lectures intended to dissuade them from having abortions. Rape isn't just a sex crime; it's a crime that strips the victim of her sense of control and agency over her own body. Medical and mental health professionals who treat rape victims are often quick to assert that the most important thing you can do in support of a victim is to help her restore her sense of control, bodily autonomy and dignity. Restricting her access to abortion by making her jump through a series of unnecessary political hoops in order to obtain the procedure again denies her control of her own sexual and reproductive organs, and can re-traumatize a sexual violence survivor.

Even many of the abortion restrictions that do offer exceptions for rape or incest still wrest control out of the survivor's hands. A third of abortion restrictions with rape exceptions require the victim to report the crime to the police, despite the fact that most rapes go unreported out of fear, shame or an attempt to regain a sense of control. Other rape exceptions go even further, applying only if the rape isn't just reported but "verified," or only where the rape is reported within 48 hours. Report your rape three days after the attack instead of two, and you're out of luck.

While rape and incest exceptions rightly push our empathy buttons, it is worth looking at the fact that they appeal to so many Americans because of the idea that rape victims didn't do anything wrong and therefore "deserve" access to abortion. The flip side of that is the argument that women who have sex consensually and (hopefully) for fun should live with the consequences. We understand that it's wrong to force a woman to use her body to carry a pregnancy against her will when she didn't consent to the sex that got her pregnant. But too many Americans don't extend that logic to women who consented to sex but not pregnancy. The vast majority of sexual acts do not result in pregnancy. The idea that a woman cedes total control over her reproductive system the minute she consents to sexual penetration is ridiculous. Yet both sides of the abortion debate rely on it, politically and rhetorically.

The "consent to sex means consent to pregnancy" argument is particularly obvious in Republican commentaries on sexual assault. Akin's observation that the female body "has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" applied to victims of what he called "legitimate rape." Rivard's comment that "some girls, they rape so easy" came after he explained that "consensual sex can turn into rape in an awful hurry." In other words, rape exceptions for abortion are a bad idea because real rape victims don't get pregnant, and women lie about rape. To qualify for an exception to abortion restrictions, your rape must be "verified." It must be reported within a time frame that a third party deems reasonable. Underlying not just the rape comments and laws but the entire right-wing take on reproductive rights is a general distrust of women and a retro ideal of gender roles that can only be maintained if women aren't able to individually determine the number and spacing of their children. The rape observations bring some of that generalized misogyny to the surface.

For pro-choicers, the obvious position is that all women deserve access to abortion, regardless of how their pregnancies began. While the majority of American voters oppose broad abortion bans, most do want to see some restrictions on the procedure, leaving abortion rights advocates in the tough position of arguing that reproductive rights are fundamental and shouldn't be up for a majority vote -- true, certainly, of any fundamental right, but not a position that goes over well with a public that wants to feel like it has a say, even over the bodies of others. Those of us who are neck-deep in these issues understand that abortion is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the same far-right Republicans proposing and passing these pieces of legislation also oppose a wide array of social and political rights and tools for women, from contraception to equal pay to subsidized daycare. The abortion debates are not, contrary to right-wing framing, about preserving "life." They're largely about the role of women in society and in the family. But expressing that truth requires explanation, nuance and a broad understanding of how many right-wing policies work together to uphold particular social roles and institutions of power.

Political opposition to abortion has never been about just abortion itself. For the American right, "abortion" is a catch-all for shifting gender roles, increased sexual freedoms and the leaps toward equality that came when women were finally able to live full sexual lives and still complete school, work and plan their families. It's no coincidence that the biggest shifts in gender equality have come right along with wider access to contraception and abortion. Abortion isn't really the issue for far-right Republicans. The issue is the demise of a social model that put men in charge with their wives as helpmeets relegated to the domestic sphere. For all their claims of "family values," Republicans do little to support families -- you don't se them rallying behind paid parental leave, children's health care, education or subsidized childcare. Instead, the party unites to oppose abortion, with increasing numbers vocalizing their objections to contraception and even to funding basic reproductive health care for low-income women. Gender issues that were bipartisan two decades ago -- family planning, ending violence against women -- are deeply partisan today, with the GOP taking the anti-woman position every time.

Sometimes, the simplest way to demonstrate the hostility Republican politicians feel toward women is by highlighting their own words on rape. The GOP big-mouths running in the last election offered pro-choicers ample opportunity to showcase the real Republican agenda to voters, and voters rejected it. That gets harder when they stop talking and start doing, which seems to be what they learned in 2012. Breathtakingly asinine comments about the female body "shutting down" pregnancy from rape make the news; the hundreds of proposed abortion restrictions making life harder for rape victims don't.

In addition to removing exceptions for rape victims from abortion legislation, some Republican legislators are defunding rape crisis centers if those centers make referrals to abortion clinics. Domestic violence centers also face funding cuts if they make any referrals to Planned Parenthood.

Atrocious comments about rape may cost individual politicians elections, but legislation targeting rape survivors earns Republicans credibility in their own party with little blowback. The take-away from the GOP's bout of 2012 rape philosophizing hasn't been, "Hey, maybe we should be a little more sensitive to rape victims." It's been the opposite: An increasing number of abortion restrictions that fail to protect women who have been raped. The only lesson learned, it seems, is to keep quiet.

Jill Filipovic

Jill Filipovic is a writer and attorney living in New York. She is a columnist at the Guardian and the editor of the blog Feministe.

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Abortion Anti-abortion Rape Republicans Todd Akin