Lost amid the furor over Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s controversial comments about rape and abortion are the inherent difficulties in staking out a pro-life position on abortion that allows for an exception for rape. As a pro-choice conservative, I am offered a perspective to see these internal flaws that threaten to set the absolutist and moderate wings of the pro-life movement against one another. This is a problem Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would like to ignore, which perhaps explains their zeal to throw Akin off the train so quickly.
The backlash that has engulfed Akin has had very little to do with his most eyebrow-raising statement about a woman’s ability to spontaneously shut down a pregnancy that results from violent rape. Instead the attacks focused primarily on his use of the word “legitimate” instead of “forcible” to differentiate between rape that involves violence and other forms of the crime that do not.
Sensing an opportunity, Democrats seized on that poorly chosen word to allege that Akin is insensitive to women and that he does not consider non-forced rape to be real rape. President Obama was quick to scale the moral high ground by declaring, “rape is rape.” Not willing to be on the losing end of an emotional battle for women voters, Mitt Romney has taken the same position. However if these are indeed his beliefs, then Romney’s pro-life stance is nothing more than a political charade. The reason should be obvious, but for political reasons know one wants to discuss it.
In recent years the definition of rape has been expanded to include any non-consensual sexual penetration. This includes the “date rape” incidents where either a perpetrator takes advantage of an incapacitated woman or the woman engages in activities that she would have refused while sober. It has been established that since a woman’s judgment is impaired while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that she is unable to consent to sex in that condition. A “yes” in that state no matter how often or enthusiastically given is a legal nullity. Although many of us will disagree viscerally, this means that legally speaking, no matter the circumstances, sex with a woman who is drunk is rape. This does not de-legitimize the actual crime of nonconsensual sex, it simply makes it much more difficult to either prove or disprove.
In truth the vast majority of alcohol-fueled couplings are fully supported by both participants. But even women who feel they were violated are unlikely to make allegations, or press charges, because they have little appetite for an ugly court case, see little likelihood for victory, or do not believe justice will be served by incarcerating opportunistic creeps. However, this will change if pro-life forces succeed in banning abortions while carving out an exception for rape.
In that theoretical world it would be impractical to require that a rape be proven before an abortion is allowed. Pregnancies move far faster than court proceedings, and as a result probable cause would suffice. But physical evidence is only available with forcible rape. In other cases the word of the woman would have to be determinative. With an unwanted pregnancy hanging in the balance, many women would be tempted to fudge the truth, especially if there are no negative consequences to subsequently withdrawing the allegation. Under these circumstances, even woman who become pregnant without the influence of alcohol or drugs will have powerful incentives suggest an alcohol-assisted rape.
Some will express outrage with me for even suggesting women would lie about such a sensitive subject. But given the right incentives woman are as corruptible as men. Faced with the choice between an unwanted pregnancy or a rape allegation that will not be required to be proven, many women would choose the latter. If I were a woman cornered by an unwanted pregnancy and a poorly constructed law that I didn’t even believe in I would look for any escape hatch I could find.
If your goal is to prevent abortions, the only practical way to allow for an exception for rape is to limit it forcible rape. That is Akin’s position (and prior to being added to the Republican ticket that was Paul Ryan’s position as well). While I don’t believe in this policy, at least it is ideological consistent and enforceable. But as it is out of step with the Republican election strategy, Akin has become a leper in his own party.
Unfortunately, an exception limited to forcible rape means that victims of other forms of rape would be denied access to abortions. While this would understandably outrage pro-choice advocates, one must view the situation in its proper context. Certainly an exception limited to victims of forcible rape is preferable to a system with no rape exception at all.
When it comes to abortion, Romney wants to have his cake and eat it too. He claims to be pro-life to satisfy a large chunk of his conservative base, but then he qualifies that position in order to court centrist voters. In so doing he eviscerates the substance of his position. But since when have elections been about substance?