Todd Akin's Bizarre 'Legitimate Rape' Remarks

By Robert Schlesinger

Robert Schlesinger is managing editor for opinion at U.S. News and World Report. He is the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. E-mail him at rschlesinger@usnews.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rschles.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have an early favorite for the Sharron Angle crackpot flame-out award, given to the GOP Senate nominee most likely to cost their party a Senate seat by making public utterances that transcend mere rabid conservatism in favor of the flat-out bizarre. I refer of course to Missouri GOP Rep. Todd Akin and his comment that "legitimate" rape doesn't result in pregnancy.

In case you missed Sunday's Akin firestorm-in case, in other words, you haven't read the news, Twitter, or Facebook-he was on a local St. Louis interview show and was asked about his opposition to abortion in all cases, including rape.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

His response, as reported by TPM:

First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare," Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Akin said that even in the worst-case scenario-when the supposed natural protections against unwanted pregnancy fail-abortion should still not be a legal option for the rape victim.

"Let's assume that maybe that didn't work, or something," Akin said. "I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?]

Which has prompted a rare moment of bipartisan unity as Americans of all political stripes ask: What in hell is "legitimate rape?"

Not surprisingly Akin quickly issued a backtracking statement.

In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it's clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year," he said. "I recognize that abortion, and particularly in the case of rape, is a very emotionally charged issue. But I believe deeply in the protection of all life and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action."

Hey look, we've all been there-meant one thing but said another. So what exactly did you mean, congressman, by "legitimate rape?" And when you said that the female body had a biological defense mechanism preventing rape-related pregnancy, what exactly were you trying to say?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Akin is bizarre, but he's not an outlier. As The Atlantic's Garance Frank-Ruta notes:

The thing is, his comments were hardly some kind never-before-heard gaffe. Arguments like his have cropped up again and again on the right over the past quarter century and the idea that trauma is a form of birth control continues to be promulgated by anti-abortion forces that seek to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The push for a no-exceptions anti-abortion policy has for decades gone hand in hand with efforts to downplay the frequency with which rape- or incest-related pregnancies occur, and even to deny that they happen, at all. In other words, it's not just Akin singing this tune.

Read her piece for the whole sordid history.

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Here's one theory on the first question: Akin is likely a rape-skeptic. This from TPM:

Back in 1991, as a state legislator, Akin voted for an anti-marital-rape law, but only after questioning whether it might be misused "in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband," according to a May 1 article that year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via LexisNexis).

In other words Akin and his ilk think a significant enough number of women claim rape when in fact they were just giving into their sinful urges. Hence the need to invent a category of "legitimate" rapes to distinguish them from all the faux rapes that slutty women claim in order to get away with their base promiscuity. (Can a Rush Limbaugh defense of Akin be far off?)

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

It won't surprise anyone to learn that Akin cosponsored a bill that would have limited Medicaid funding for abortions resulting from "forcible rape" (currently Medicaid is barred from paying for abortions except in cases of rape and incest). GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was also a cosponsor of that legislative gem, by the way.

[GOP Brand Hurt by 'Legitimate Rape' Claim]

Just for the record, a 1996 study found that the pregnancy rate among rape victims was 5 percent-or more than 32,000 pregnancies annually. If you're like me, that statistic rolls your stomach. Apparently if you're like Todd Akin it rolls your eyes as you wonder how many of those of 32,000 were just making it all up.