Was Plucky Huck Mistaken to Save Akin’s Bacon?

Was Plucky Huck Mistaken to Save Akin’s Bacon? August 27, 2012

Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe has provided a Sister Souljah moment for the Republican Party.  He’s become the glaring red neon sign emblazoned with the words, “If you reach this point, you’ve gone too far.”

It’s unfortunate for Todd Akin because what he said was nowhere near as offensive as what Sister Souljah said prior to the 1992 election. The activist and hip-hop MC was quoted as saying, in response to the Los Angeles riots in 1992: “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

Todd Akin, by contrast, was not advocating genocide.  He said one stupid thing and one imprudent thing.  He asserted the existence of a hitherto-unknown reproductive mechanism that functions something like a Venus Mons Fly Trap (all puns intended) to capture and kill Rapist Sperm.  That was the stupid part — but it was a meme Akin had inherited.  Although I’ve been pro-life for as long as I can remember and I’ve never heard it before, apparently this has served as a kind of urban myth in some pro-life circles that has made it easier to justify opposition to abortion in cases of rape.  The effect is to say that pregnancy due to rape is rare, and this exception ought not to dictate our policy position on abortion in general.  Akin did what partisans do all the time: he assumed the truth of what he had inherited from those who shared his viewpoint and fought alongside him in the cause.


The imprudent thing was the reference to “legitimate rape,” and especially unfortunate was the relationship between the stupid thing and the imprudent thing.  As others have documented well enough already, what Akin meant to say was something like “forcible rape” in contrast to statutory rape — a justified and important legal and moral distinction.  Put most charitably: in cases of statutory rape (if, say, a 19 year old boyfriend is having sex with his 16 year old girlfriend), the female is willing and receptive, and the female body responds to pleasant sexual experiences in ways that make conception more likely — as opposed to forcible rape, where (the theory goes) the normal sexual response cycle that prepares the woman for fertilization does not occur, or the extreme trauma of the rape experience may lead to miscarriage, or the stress level releases some kind of muscular Sperminator to devastate all the little swimmers, or whatever.  My only point: this was the reason he was making the distinction.  His very wording implied that the female body is not always successful in this, and thus sometimes women who are forcibly raped will conceive.  He was not trying to cast doubt on claims of rape — but that’s exactly what it sounded like he was doing.  It sounded like this: if you get pregnant, you were not really raped, because if you had really been raped then an emergency Sperminator would emerge and say hasta la vista, spermos.

So that’s it.  Akin said something stupid and something imprudent.  He revealed that he had a rather serious misunderstanding of the reproductive process, when he has made his career in part on his opposition to abortion.  That’s a serious mistake.  It’s embarrassing.

Did this act alone justify the way that Republicans abandoned Akin?  Here is where Mike Huckabee is right: not really.  Heck, Barney Frank’s boyfriend was running a gay prostitution ring out of Frank’s apartment, and the Dems stood by him.  Bill Clinton was seducing interns in the Oval Office.  We can all think of serious moral lapses, or (more to the point) stupid statements from liberals that did not merit their abandonment.

Governor Huckabee: right motive, wrong application.

So Huckabee has played the role of Jesse Jackson in the Sister Souljah episode.  Jackson said, “Sister Souljah represents the feelings and hopes of a whole generation of people,” and refused to repudiate her.  Huckabee lambasted Republicans for forsakin’ Akin (yes, rhymes will keep coming).  Although he’s wrong that it’s an “establishment” versus “principled pro-life activists” issue (Sarah Palin is hardly “establishment), he’s right that this single misstatement does not explain how quickly and completely so many Republican figures turned on Akin and pleaded with him to get out of the race.

Huckabee is basically right about Akin, but wrong about the good-willed people opposing him.  As Rick Warren would say: Todd, the first thing you need to know is that this isn’t about you.  This is about the future of the Republican party, the reputation of the conservative movement, the extreme importance of recapturing the Senate, and therefore ultimately it’s about the future of the country in which we live.

Akin makes social conservatives look like dinosaurs.  He makes us look uneducated, uninformed, and unscientific.  He gives credence to the insipid “Republican war on women” meme.  He represents your grandfather’s conservatism, not the image the Republican Party wants (and needs) to project today.  He’s said other foolish things too — about liberalism being at heart about “a hatred for God” and about America being in the “stage three cancer of socialism” — that have led wise conservatives like John Mark Reynolds to judge that Akin lacks the virtue of prudence that we ought to seek in our leaders.  A lot of conservatives, and social conservatives in particular, are tired of representatives who make them look like idiots.

That’s the first reason so many conservatives were breakin’ with Akin.  The second is because opposing Akin is advantageous for the party as a whole, and thus the movement, and thus the country.  It’s not merely that conservatives want better representatives.  It’s that Todd Akin, like Sister Souljah, unwittingly provided Republican leaders an opportunity to define themselves over against the “extremes” in their own party.

Just when the Obama administration wants to portray the Republican party as the party of old white men, of anti-intellectual southerners who are really driven by dark theocratic impulses and hatred for women and minorities, taking Akin further into the fold would only be making their argument more plausible.  At this moment when it’s so vitally important to win back the Senate, and when a single seat could turn the tide, shaking Akin communicates that the Republican party is more evolved.  The platform is still strong on matters of life, but it’s not based on some Snopes-worthy urban myth about emergency Sperminators.

If driving a stake in Akin will make an overall victory more likely, and give Republicans the ability to drive the extremely important decisions regarding the future of our country, then, well, Akin’s bacon is cooked.

To social conservatives in Tampa: this is not a matter of principle against convenience; there’s nothing unprincipled in encouraging a friend to step aside for the good of the cause and the people the cause serves.  The interests of the nation outweigh the interests of one man.  It may not be fair, but please, kindly, graciously, tell Akin that he can find some lovely and lucrative job elsewhere.  He won’t end up on food stamps.

Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war.

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  • Akin seems to have become 2012’s Christine O’Donnell, except instead of being pretty and telegenic yet a rhetoric train wreck we get the uncle that you try to politely avoid at the family gathering.

    The other analogy from 2010 was less covered in the media; Dan Maes in the Colorado governor’s rate. He melted down to the point where Tom Tancredo running on the Constitution Party line became the main candidate of the right, losing to now-governor Hickenlooper 51-36 with Maes getting 11%.

    If Republicans rally behind an alternative write-in candidate (or a viable third party, but I don’t know the options in MO) to the point where Akin can’t win, he might opt to pack it in. Pleading with him to quit seems not to be working, so changing the strategy to finding an alternative on the ballot (or making one via a write-in) might work better.

    Short of that, the O’Donnell analogy looks like where we’re heading.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      From what I hear, it’s possible he’ll come away from the convention convinced that he cannot go forward. But he wanted to go through the convention and see whether he could pull together enough support.

      Unfortunately, I think he’s going to convince that he can, that he has become a cause celebre for hard-core social conservatives.

  • David Capp

    As a Missouri voter (who voted for someone else in the primary) I was deeply disturbed by this whole thing. And it is ultimately that I could deal with any of the three contenders, and that they were all fine candidates. But losing this election could have dire national consequences against a very weak Democrat who should not win re-election. I so want Akin off of the ballot, or a viable write-in alternative. I am so disappointed, not because Akin is a terrible guy, but because he doesn’t understand that he blew it, and the best thing for the country and Missouri is for him to step aside.

  • FranInAtlanta

    Am glad I don’t live in Missouri. My feeling from a distance is that the Republicans of Missouri need to get together and decide to support one person – if not pro-choice, it could be the Libertarian candidate. That said, his comment about magical rejection of the sperm of a rapist sent me into orbit – primarily because if I were pregnant as the result of rape, he believes that I am not a “proper” woman. However, secondarily, all of the pro-life people who want someone impregnated by rape (and I am not one of them although I do respect them) to carry the baby have an old man sitting there saying the mom-to-be is not a “proper” woman.

  • Leigh

    You forget one thing about that “statutory rape” comparison. You allegoried a 16-year-old girl with her 19-year-old boyfriend, where “the female is willing and receptive, and the female body responds to pleasant sexual experiences in ways that make conception more likely — as opposed to forcible rape, where (the theory goes) the normal sexual response cycle that prepares the woman for fertilization does not occur, or the extreme trauma of the rape experience may lead to miscarriage, or the stress level releases some kind of muscular Sperminator to devastate all the little swimmers, or whatever. ”

    Um….the 16 year old girl is a MINOR, dimwit. The 19-year-old having sex with her is an ADULT. So even if the 16 year old girl is “willing”, it is STILL statutory rape of a minor by an ADULT.

    Get a clue why don’t you.

    Oh and your observation that Akin makes social conservatives “look uneducated, uninformed, and unscientific,” well, gee, that’s odd, because that’s EXACTLY what you are.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yes, I know the 16-year-old is a minor, that’s why it’s statutory rape. I wasn’t saying that statutory rape is not a serious crime. I was just saying that it’s legally and morally distinct from forcible rape. Reading comprehension, Leigh. Give it a try.

      Leigh, why don’t you read up about me before you allege that I am “uneducated, uninformed and unscientific.” You’re making yourself look silly.

  • A Jardine

    Very good analysis. I have another framework:
    There are four kinds of misstatements one can make in political campaigns:
    1. Words that can be taken out of context, but the meaning attributed to them is unreasonable. No one can foresee this sorty of thing.
    2. Words that can be taken out of context, but the meaning attributed may not be unreasonable. Sometimes one can foresee this, but sometimes not. These things happen.
    3. Statements that are just stupid. One can apologize for these things and often that is enough, depending on whether they reinforce some other negative narrative about you.
    4. Statements that are beyond the pale stupid and do reinforce a negative narrative about you or about the party. These statements give aid and comfort to the enemy. That’s the enemy of the party, but also the enemy of the country. These are statements for which no apology is sufficient.
    Akin’s comments about “legitmate” rape, if sufficient skill is used, can be fit into catetory 2.
    But the whole business about womens’ bodies having extra defenses is clearly category 4. It wasn’t a “misstatement.” It was a broadcast that this guy is beyond stupid, and doesn’t have the intelligence or the judgment to serve in public office. He would be the Carol Moseley Braun of the Republicans. There would be gaffe after gaffe and he would serve one term and be defeated by a liberal democrat.

  • Tim

    Have we not all said stupid, indefensible things? Is there a better way than saying, “I gotcha?” might we look at what people say in contex, including the other examples above? Might we listen for the needs and the hurts behind what people say?

    • There’s no context in which Akin’s words can be construed as anything other than severely idiotic. It’s one thing to misspeak. Everyone does that. If you stretch a bit, the “legitimate/forcible” rape confusion can arguably be considered to be a slipup; I could buy the argument that the context indicates that he was talking about legal language. (Whether I think the distinction is useful or justified is another matter.) Akin didn’t misspeak when he said, “From what I understand from doctors […] the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down, but let’s assume maybe that didn’t work or something.” There’s no way someone strings together a sentence like that without having the force of conviction and forethought behind it. He was simply stating what he believes to be true. What he believes to be true is gobsmackingly indefensible. If someone stakes a great deal of his reputation on his credentials as an anti-abortion advocate, and if that person does not understand basic human biology, then that person loses credibility as an advocate on reproductive issues.

      I get that pro-life conservatives don’t want to cede any ground on the debate over the rights of the unborn. But Akin is not the person to conduct that debate, and being generous to him because he’s a “good man” or because “his heart is in the right place” on this particular issue is turning a blind eye to both his inadequacy as an advocate and to the false assumptions and faulty information that are obviously still alive in some anti-abortion circles. This isn’t just about what’s good for the Republican Party’s election prospects. This is about what’s good for the public discourse involving this issue. People like Akin need to step away from that discourse and let cooler heads and sharper intellects take point in the cultural conversation.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I agree, as stated, that Akin is not the right person to represent social conservatives on the issue. I think, though, if you had grown up in Akin’s generation and read the things he’s read (including seemingly scientific articles defending this point of view), you’d find it a less inexplicable belief.

        • I don’t find it to be inexplicable. I find it to be indefensible. Akin might have grown up with pseudo-science and inaccurate talking points, but he’s a grown man; he has access to the same information as everybody else in the civilized world. If he’s going to run for public office and make abortion one of his signature issues, he is responsible for making sure that he is basing his position on the best, most current information. (By “best,” I mean medically accurate, and by “current,” I mean from within the last couple decades.)

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            Don’t be insulted by my saying you found it “inexplicable.” You called it “gobsmackingly indefensible,” so let’s stick with that. I think you’d find it more justified — even though untrue — if you looked carefully at why some within the pro-life ranks believed this. I agree, of course, that he’s responsible for his beliefs and fell short in this case. As I’ve stated elsewhere, however, I know plenty of intelligent and intellectually responsible people who buy into urban myths when those myths accord with their own political interests. Akin is guilty of that here, but I think your sympathetic imagination is coming up short when you say there’s no context in which his comments can be construed as anything other than severely idiotic.

            Back to my original post: the imprudent was the misspeaking. The stupid was in believing what he did. We’re all rushing to say how idiotic and indefensible it is, but I haven’t seen anyone actually carefully laying out the issue. I join in the mockery here about emergency Sperminators and such, but the truth is that there’s nothing intrinsically implausible in the general idea that an extremely traumatic event might indeed decrease the likelihood of fertilization or implantation or etc. The absence of the sexual response cycle might make it less likely for sperm to be deposited deeply, or a zygote could be expelled in miscarriage if the body has reason to believe it’s unsafe to carry a child, etc. I’m not saying this is so, I’m just saying it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to understand why a non-idiot could believe this.

          • I wasn’t insulted at all; I was correcting a misapprehension of what I wrote. It’s not that I can’t imagine or understand how a person like Akin could come to believe what he does. That’s why I clarified that I don’t find his stated beliefs to be inexplicable. I know all too well the temptation to buy into convenient myths for rhetorical purposes; my background and beliefs are strongly rooted in an anti-abortion foundation. I personally know people — good, decent people — that have said things as indefensible, stupid, and imprudent as what Akin said. That doesn’t change the fact that those words are gobsmackingly indefensible.

            I’m willing to lay out the issue a bit. The fact that there are more than a thousand rape pregnancies reported each year (never mind the ones that go unreported) is enough to demonstrate that this not-intrinsically-implausible idea is flatly false. There may be trauma to the body that has taken place because of the rape, but that’s because it was inflicted by the violence of the act itself; it’s not like the female body has some innate, mystical ability to “shut that whole thing down.” It’s true that circumstances may heighten or decrease the likelihood of pregnancy, but that’s true in any case, even with people who are trying very hard to conceive. Pro-life advocates who promote abstinence education are so terribly fond of pointing out that even condoms — the most commonly-used devices specifically designed to prevent pregnancy — are not 100 percent effective. If deliberate birth control itself is not entirely effective at preventing pregnancy, how does it make any sense that unprotected intercourse during a rape would result in magical Spermination-extermination? It doesn’t make any sense, and Akin should have already known that and adjusted his argument and position accordingly. Furthermore, I don’t think the burden of proof should rest upon those who are already literate in the fundamental biological facts (or possess the ability to reason). It should rest upon those who make medically specious claims (based upon questionable-at-best, but mostly nonexistent evidence), and then try to use those specious claims to justify political positions that a majority of people find to be unacceptable.

            My point is that anyone who has taken the time to get his elementary facts straight on reproductive issues (and this should certainly include any politician who plans to vote on legislation that involves these issues) already knows how idiotic Akin’s stated beliefs are, so while I can easily imagine a scenario in which someone could be tempted to fall back on myths and poor reasoning to justify his viewpoint, that’s not a valid excuse for Akin — or his supporters — to be ignorant, even if their ignorance is, to some extent, comprehensible. To me, it compounds their offense that developing an informed, compassionate position is relatively easy, and that, instead, people like Akin choose to hunker down in their anti-intellectual cave and dispense policy ideas without having the slightest idea what they’re talking about. Then, when all the folks who passed a 21st century freshman health class call them on their junk pseudo-science, they have the temerity to imply that anyone who does not shut up and back them on principle (because, hey! we’re all anti-abortion here, amirite?!) is somehow weakening the pro-life cause, or quibbling about nitpicky details. This should not be tolerated. It’s an affront to honest, intelligent debate, and the consequences of this kind of ignorance being passed into law would have a catastrophic impact on the lives of millions of women and men.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            Okay, this is just getting onerous. Yes, you are showing a failure of imagination, and your pride is hurt at my suggestion that this is so. Sorry about that. But let me explain where I’m coming from.

            When we talk about whether a belief “gobsmackingly indefensible,” the question is one of justification and not truth. I hope you’re familiar with this distinction. A belief is defensible, even if false, if it is a justified belief. In order to be gobsmackingly indefensible, it would have to be extremely far from justified. But justified beliefs for one person may not be justified beliefs for another person. People have different information available to them, different “facts” (“facts” which they may be justified in seeing as facts, even if they’re not truly facts), different authorities, and so forth. If authorities you trust and studies you trust tell you that there are biological mechanisms by which the female reproductive system in the midst of trauma shuts down, then you can be justified in the belief even if it’s a false belief. It’s complicated, of course, because you need to have justification for trusting those authorities and those sources and those facts. But in order to be gobsmackingly indefensible, all of this would have to be so unbelievable unjustified. Now, examining whether a certain person is justified in holding a certain belief requires an act of sympathetic imagination: you have to be able to put yourself in that person’s shoes, and that, I humbly suggest, is where you’re failing.

            The fact that there are “more than a thousand rape pregnancies reported each year” — if it is a fact (I think there are actually more) — is only relevant IN COMPARISON with the number of rapes, and then comparing that proportion of pregnancies/rapes to the proportion os pregnancies/intercourse in non-rape situations. Remember that Akin did not say that rape pregnancies are nonexistent, or that the mysterious biological mechanism is always effective. He said they’re rare because the body has ways to “try” to shut it down. So, his assertion would be TRUE if rape is LESS LIKELY to lead pregnancy, or at least if it is RARE in comparison to the frequency of impregnation in non-rape sex. It would be JUSTIFIED if he good reasons to believe that rape is less likely to lead to impregnation, and at least NOT-GOBSMACKINGLY-UNJUSTIFIED if his reasons for believing this were not so bad as to beggar belief. (This is why I used the word “inexplicable”).

            Your points in the second paragraph are just irrelevant. The fact that the trauma comes from the act of rape is irrelevant; the suggestion would be that such trauma could such stress within the body, the release of certain hormones or whatever, that could cause the body to reject implantation or etc. The fact that there are always factors making pregnancy more or less likely is also irrelevant; the question is whether THIS factor would add an additional degree of unlikelihood. The condom point is irrelevant; the question is whether unprotected, undesired, traumatic and violent sex is less likely to lead to pregnancy than unprotected but desired and willing and cooperative sex. The burden of proof is neither on one side or the other. It’s simply an empirical question – is the female reproductive system less likely to conceive when the sex is forced and traumatic and resisted and etc. It’s a tough issue to study, for obvious reasons, which is one reason why there is no straightforward study that we can simply point to and resolve the question decisively.

            Again, though, to be crystal clear, I’m not saying that his assertion was correct. I said it was dumb. But I don’t find it gobsmackingly indefensible. There’s a big distance between dumb and gobsmackingly indefensible.

            Finally, Akin has not hunkered down. He has repudiated his statement and apologized for it repeatedly. But the whole point of the post was to make the point you make in the third paragraph, that dismissing Akin as a poor representative of the cause is not abandoning, but probably doing a service to, the cause.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    To me, dear Timothy, it is utterly remarkable how many lucid and knowledgeable biologists and gynecologists have responded to your article. Your words were somewhat carefully chosen, but I would say without thorough research regarding the forcibly-raped woman’s body to shut down ovulation. Your commenters were not so specific in their use of rather stupid slurs that call into question not only their intellect, but also their purpose.

    I (also) do not have a master’s degree or PHD in any of the necessary subjects, which is why I am still waiting for a complete report on what happens to a woman’s body in a brutal or forcible rape. There are NO studies, obviously. There also seem to be no “experts”, only talking heads who seem to have a notably political agenda.

    Can a rape result in a pregnancy? No doubt. We have living, breathing examples of this, already quoted in a Washington Examiner article. Does it happen every time? Well,………..we are still waiting for that one (even just ONE) authoritative article.

    Thank you for your attempt.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Well said.

  • Jay Saldana

    Dear Tim, While I agree with the point of view shared by you and others, I cringed every time someone says “forcible rape”. Gentlemen, and that title and what it represents seems to be part of the problem, rape is rape.
    The hair splitting difference you are suggesting, deny by implication and ignorance, the damage and emotional baggage that that act entails and carries with it. Seriously, the legal separation implied by the legal authorities’ terms (FBI for instance) does not connect with the emotional content attached to the term.
    Let me try this: If you told me you had a car accident on the way to work today, I would think in my head of a serious fender bender and would be concerned for your well being (“Are you ok?”). I would not associate “car accident” with a ding in your door when you stopped to get coffee from your friendly 7-11. Yet both situations could be described the same way. But as a culture of men, lead by men – for most of human history – we have taken care to add detail to “our” terms that affect “us”. For the females among us we have failed to be so specific. It may be that for too long, at least culturally, the “act” was seeing as damaging the man’s “person” not the woman. But as we have become aware of our failure to “love them as Jesus loved the church” in a cultural way, we keep tripping over our habitual toes. This topic is a case in point. No woman that I know sees “Rape” as anything less than violent and a complete betrayal and violation of their humanity. Every time, we as men, imply a lessor impact they are, at least mentally, betrayed. Please stop. I am tired of defending you.
    Have a God filled Day.

  • Noel

    See http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/6316

    Virginia Burrus: As soon as I began hearing the news reports of Akin’s remarks, I was haunted by similarities with the thought of the late Roman theologian Augustine. I hasten to say that I would not want to compare Akin in any general way to Augustine, who was a brilliant theologian and writer, accolades I would not by any means assign to Akin! The comparison I have in mind is quite specific, and that is Augustine’s discussion at the very beginning of his famous work City of God of the rape of Lucretia, a traditional Roman tale that he revisits in the context of real or anticipated wartime rapes of women of the Christian community. “

  • Noel

    Some conservatives seem more worried aboiut the unborn than those who have had a joy/pain of being born in the United States. For some they can look forward to a life of homelessness, poor health, racism and poverty. Of course since many of the prisons are private there, they will provide a steady income to those lucky enough to have the money to buy such a structure. No wonder they brought in the three strikes and your out, must keep those prisons full.

  • DavidR

    Well, I tried to post a comment in which (1) I suggested that to me it sounded more like that by “legitimate rape” Akin meant “actual rape” as opposed to “well, she says she was raped, but can we believe her?”; and (2) I questioned why a discussion that concerns almost nothing but internal Republican Party politics is on a blog about religion/faith/spirituality, which to me indicates a sense that the politics IS the faith, a very serious problem among U.S. Christians, one that many of us are so enmeshed in that we can’t even see it. It got rejected because the robot thought it seemed “spammy.” Maybe it was too long; I’ve tried shortening it.

  • DavidR

    OK, the post went through that time. The original was about twice that long, but not nearly as long as other comments that have posted successfully. I can’t figure out why it got rejected, unless it’s because I mentioned Democrats. 😉

  • Laura

    Well, one thing I haven’t seen in all this mess is to look at the baby from the perspective of a fertility patient. Suppose I wanted to conceive. What instructions and research is out there regarding stress and the ability to conceive? I’ve often heard that stress inhibits conception. The facts and recommendations were extremely easy to find in an online search, because I was searching for fertility advice, not propaganda. Here’s an example: “Believe it or not, our bodies are equipped to prevent conception from occurring during times of extreme stress. The presence of adrenalin, the hormone that is released by our bodies during stressful times, signals to our body that conditions are not ideal for conception. Adrenalin inhibits us from utilizing the hormone progesterone, which is essential for fertility. It also causes the pituitary gland to release higher levels of prolactin, which also causes infertility to occur.

    How Stress Impacts Fertility
    Recent research tells us that stress boosts levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which inhibits the body’s main sex hormones GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone) and subsequently suppresses ovulation, sexual activity and sperm count.”