Republican Congressman and US Senate Candidate Todd Akin, of Missouri, said in an interview Sunday, in a line now infamous,
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”
Akin was responding to a question about whether or not abortion should be legal in cases of rape. According to the most recent Gallup survey, 20% of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all cases, including saving the life of the mother and in instances of rape or incest–a position also held by the runner-up in the Republican presidential primary, Rick Santorum, by Rep. Paul Ryan, and by the official Republican party platform. Ryan, currently the Republican vice-presidential candidate, who co-sponsored H.R. 212, the “Sanctity of Human Life Act,” with Rep. Akin on the third day of business of the new Republican-led congress in January 2011, affirmed that “the life of each human being begins with fertilization… at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.”
What I think is most startling about Akin’s remarks is the way he brings in a pseudo-scientific explanation (he is a member of the House Science Committee) to soften up the ground for a deft rhetorical dodge. Akin doesn’t actually say that women cannot get pregnant from rape; he says that pregnancy from rape is an extremely unlikely event because of a putative defense mechanism embedded in the female body. Once he has established that this is something that almost never happens–that we don’t even really need to think about, really–he rapidly changes the subject, saying that the rapist should be punished but not the child. His play is, at its heart, “Let’s not even think about what the raped woman has to go through–let’s focus on making sure that the individual who did this is brought to justice–surely we can all agree on that?”
However, Akin is not simply dishonest in making this move. I think the reason this particular fiction has been deployed by so many Republican politicians over the past three decades is because it reflects a particular ideological pose, a desire for the world to work a certain way. From Akin’s perspective, the world is set up in such a way that compound injustices–like being forced to carry a rapist’s baby to term–almost never happen. This is why Akin and his supporters rally to the quasi-sociobiological claim that there’s a system in place to prevent rapes from turning into pregnancies: he believes that there is justice etched into the grain of the world. It is also why he and other right-wing figures modify “rape” by qualifying it with words like “legitimate” or “forcible.” There is a belief on the right that rape almost never happens–that the majority of cases of rape are actually reported by fallen women who had it coming, and that even when rape does happen, it doesn’t yield pregnancy. So there is justice in the world after all.
What Akin can’t see is that the world is not a place where justice always prevails. Accidents happen, including gross miscarriages of justice. God is not always sitting nearby with a thumb on the scale. This is the trap of theodicy (from the Greek theos, “god,” and dike, “justice”–the justice of God) as an intellectual enterprise: it assumes the world is a smoothed-out system, that the little jags of accident that jut out and wreck our lives have an intelligible purpose. It rejects the possibility that accidents can happen and leave people with only bad options. Rick Santorum offers a subtle variation of this theme when he asks women who have been raped to “make the best of a bad situation.” He recognizes that the horror of rape and a pregnancy derived form rape is real (unlike Akin, who believes that a preventive mechanism is built into the works), but suggests that “the right approach is to accept this horribly created–in the sense of rape–but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you.” His version is that even something with a destructive provenance can be a gift of God.
Both of these approaches try to make the world into a place where justice, not accident reigns. Both reflect the peril of abstract theodicy, the rationalization of the world along the lines of a divine intelligence. And both represent a distinct patriarchal prerogative: the privilege of not having to live in fear of having your own body turned against you by a random act of violence.