Author’s note: This piece is a good bit longer than most posts will be. But given the topic and central theme of this post, it seems appropriate to devote more time and space to this conversation.
If you’ve turned on the news at all in the past week you are likely to have heard MO Congressman Todd Akin’s offensive comments that “legitimate rape” is not likely to result in pregnancy because the woman’s body has “ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” With the start of a new week, I’m sure Republicans would like nothing more than to put the whole Akin controversy to bed and turn the page to the national convention they are trying to host (if Isaac will let them). But the issue is not going away. While the comments have been widely condemned by leaders across political parties, including President Obama and Governor Romney, condemnation is not enough. There is more here that needs to be said. What we need is an honest discussion about the reasoning that led to these statements and an acknowledgement that our politically charged rhetoric is preventing us from having necessary conversations on abortion and leading to policies that endanger women.
To begin to unpack this we must first realize that Rep. Akin’s remarks were not thoughtless throw-away words. He meant what he said, and many others share his views. As one of their first acts when they regained the majority, House Republicans, including Rep. Akin, tried to introduce the term “forcible rape” into law, raising legal and moral questions about what exactly “non-forcible rape” is and whether there are degrees of severity when it comes to rape. Akin was joined in these efforts by Rep. Paul Ryan, the newly minted GOP Vice Presidential candidate. Only a few days after Rep. Akin’s recent remarks, Iowa Rep. Steven King told a reporter that he didn’t know of any cases where victims of statutory rape have gotten pregnant. When most people were quickly putting distance between themselves and Rep. Akin, the Family Research Council stated in a release that they “enthusiastically endorse his candidacy.” And Brian Fischer, host of the radio show Focal Point on American Family Radio (one of the largest Christian radio networks in the country), went so far as to say that Rep. Akin’s claim that women who are raped cannot get pregnant is “absolutely right.”
There’s a lot more going on here than a debate over whether rape is really rape. What is really at issue are the gut-wrenching and morally impossible questions that the reality of rape poses to the issue of abortion. When it comes to most of our abortion debates, the focus is often on what the woman could or should have done to keep from getting pregnant. Women are often reduced to a catalog of their mistakes and sins, and compassion for their circumstances is frequently removed from the equation and our legislation. But being the victim of rape is not a sin. Ironically, rape humanizes women in a climate where the majority of our rhetoric around abortion dehumanizes them. Everyone, including Congressman Akin, feels extreme compassion for the victims of rape. And so the question naturally arises, is abortion morally justified when the woman is not only not responsible for her pregnancy, but is the victim of an incredibly traumatic and violent assault? It’s a legitimate question and an extremely difficult one.
This is the question Rep. Akin was responding to when he made his harmful comments. It is pretty clear from the rest of his response that Rep. Akin does not support abortion in the case of rape. Before too many people decry this position as an example of his “extreme anti-abortion views” I would question whether his position is really that different from pacifists who oppose all war, even to prevent genocide. Polling shows that 75% of Americans believe abortion is permissible in the case of rape or incest, putting Rep. Akin in the minority view. But expressing a minority position is not inherently extreme or offensive. In fact, I would say that for those who believe that the sanctity of life is absolutely inviolable, holding genuine love and compassion for a victim of rape while believing she should not have an abortion does take moral courage.
But Rep. Akin did not show moral courage. Instead, he chose the wide and easy path of avoiding moral complexity by delegitimizing (literally) the experience of women who become pregnant as a result of rape. Rather than have the hard, honest (potentially politically costly) discussion about his moral convictions, Rep. Akin made up medical facts to dismiss the gut-wrenching decisions thousands of women face each year. The essence of his comments was a fictive assertion that pregnancy as a result of rape is a non-issue, therefore abortion as the result of rape is not a significant concern. Opposing abortion in the case of rape would certainly be easier if this was true, but wanting to avoid a difficult position does not justify harming thousands of women. This is where the abortion wars have led us. We are now in a place where compassion for a woman faced with abortion is completely removed from our discourse and our policies, and is replaced instead by fictional facts and altered reality.
I suspect the reason Rep. Akin responded the way he did is the same reason many of our public debates have become so polarized. Our system, from our media to our politics, thrives off an us vs. them mentality. We need everything to be cast as clearly defined choices. Admitting that there are issues where the moral choice is not easily defined (or at a minimum is not made without a great deal of pain and soul searching) is acknowledging that people of good will can disagree on important issues, even issues of life and death. Running a 30-second political ad saying your opponent has wrestled with a morally complex issue and come to a different conclusion than you is a lot harder than just calling him a baby-killer or anti-woman. And so we find ways to avoid the tough questions.
When it comes to sexual assault and abortion, we’ve already seen the policy implications of this shift in our social conscience. With their “forcible rape” legislation, House Republicans have already tried to limit the circumstances in which victims of rape can seek an abortion. The party platform Republicans are preparing to adopt this week in Tampa currently includes no exceptions for abortion in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother. Whether one believes that abortion is permissible in the case of rape or not, do we really want that incredibly personal, exceptionally difficult decision to be legislated by the government? And the ripples reach well beyond abortion. Earlier this year, Senate Republicans moved to block reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act because it expanded protections for victims of sexual assault. In 31 states, women who do choose to carry their pregnancy to term after being raped have no protections to prevent their rapists from turning around and asserting their full parental rights.
The way we talk about rape and abortion matters because it shapes our culture; it determines how we view victims of sexual assault, pregnant women, and single mothers and influences whether the laws we adopt are beneficial or harmful for them. If Rep. Akin is opposed to abortion in the case of rape, then he should be crusading for policies that prevent sexual assault, not making medically inaccurate statements about when and how women can get pregnant.
Our language on abortion matters for our policies. It also matters for people of faith. As Christians, we are never allowed to duck moral complexity or dismiss compassion. Even in the face of unrepentant sinners (whether you put women who seek abortions in this category or not), we are commanded to show love. Jesus models this over and over again from the woman caught in adultery to his prayer for forgiveness from the cross. Defending the sanctity of life in the womb does not give us the right to dehumanize or delegitimize the worth of the person we oppose.
Before I am accused of saying that Republicans and conservatives do not have compassion for women facing unintended pregnancies or victims of rape, that is not what I believe. But the policies we are implementing, and the language we have adopted, do not reflect those values. Framing issues in black and white terms may be the best way to score political points and win elections, but it is not how we build a more just and compassionate society.
Central to the Christian faith is the conviction that the compassion we show is not only because of Jesus, but it is literally for Jesus. Mitt Romney stated recently that his favorite Scripture is Matthew 25, which is a well loved passage for me as well. In it, Jesus reminds us that whatever we do for “the least of these” – from clothing the naked, to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting the prisoner – we do for him. We would do well to apply that standard to all the issues we face. Whatever we do for the college freshman faced with an unintended pregnancy, we do for him. Whatever we deny the “welfare queen” with four children, we deny him. Whatever we say about victims of rape, we say about him.
It’s time to stop dehumanizing one another in our rhetoric and in our laws and to start having honest conversations about the painful, messy, complex challenges we face.