Julian Sheather and Vivienne Nathanson: Todd Akin, rape, and “doctors”

Vivienne Nathanson

According to the historian Tony Judt, the Red Army, after raping and brutalising its way across Europe in the closing stages of the Second World War, left behind, in Germany alone, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 “Russian babies.” These figures, he writes, “make no allowance for untold numbers of abortions, as a result of which many women died along with their unwanted foetuses.” Recently, asked his views on whether abortion should be banned even if the pregnancy resulted from rape, Todd Akin, a US Republican congressman running for the Senate, replied that such pregnancies were “really rare.” Despite being a member of the House Committee on Science he stated that “from what I understand from doctors…if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” It is tempting just to leave those juxtaposed sentences standing there, to permit the fatuity of that last statement to speak for itself, but the more you think about it the more the buried assumptions in it, the more the meretricious misuse of science and morality clamour for a voice.

If we take a moral position on an issue as serious as abortion, one in which so many profound interests are at stake, it surely falls to us to test our position against the hardest cases. For those who argue that a foetus has full moral status from conception—that abortion is always murder—one such difficult case is where the pregnancy was the result of rape. If you argue for full moral equivalence between the mother and the foetus it is difficult to see how abortion can be justified—the one possible exception being where the continuing pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Otherwise the mother must carry the pregnancy to term. Todd Akin, unwilling presumably to confront the dilemma in public tries instead to duck it. Hence the meretricious appeal to “science.” A woman’s body has been so wonderfully crafted as to be able to shut down in the face of “legitimate” rape. Set aside the choice of words—its antonym is presumably the ghastly tautology “illegitimate rape,” i.e. every other conception—set aside even the nod to “doctors.” What Akin is saying is that whatever the woman herself might think, if pregnancy is the outcome, it cannot have been rape.

Which brings us to the fundamental assumption on which Akin’s statement surely rests: that a woman’s body, presumably her womb, is a better judge of whether she has been raped than she is. Ask not whether she consented, ask not whether she was forced, whether she resisted, whether she fought: ask only if she became pregnant. Unaided by her biology a woman cannot negotiate the complexities of sexual etiquette, cannot decide for herself whether she wishes to have sex. Her body has to do that for her. A woman is therefore not capable of knowing her own mind, of making her own choices. She is not fully a moral person. She is a womb with a moral sub-person attached.

Akin and others later said that he meant forcible rape.  Another appalling misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the nature of rape. The idea that rape is not rape unless the victim is physically injured, unless her life is at risk, and that if she does not struggle or fight she was a willing sexual participant is to misunderstand rape so completely that it sets aside decades of psycho-social development. It is an affront to women, and to a civilised society, to suggest that only a physical struggle against the assailant means that a rape occurred. We recognise that sex with an unconscious person, or someone too inebriated or drugged to be able to assent or dissent is rape.  These victims are rarely able to struggle.  Equally someone threatened with violence may be unable to struggle from fear.  It is not the external observers view of whether that fear was justified that matters; it is the fact that the victim felt such a level of fear that she was unable to stop the attack that should matter to us.

Rape has little to do with sex as ordinarily understood. It is not a reproductive strategy. It is about power and degradation. Armies use it to subdue and degrade civilian populations. Raping women who will be condemned or ostracised by their societies for being sexually active outside marriage tears open the social fabric, almost always at the expense of the female victims. Individual men also use sexual violence control women, to assert their power, to express rage and loathing.  As Judt’s figures make it all too tragically clear, pregnancy can be the result. It beggars belief that in an attempt to escape the dilemmas of his own moral position Akin accuses the victims of rape of being mistaken. Is this man really fit to legislate?

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.
Vivienne Nathanson, BMA director of professional activities.