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August 26, 2012

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Rep. Akin’s view has roots in pro-life movement

TERRE HAUTE — “It seems to me first of all from what I understand from doctors that’s really rare [a pregnancy resulting from rape], if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

— Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin in a local news interview on Aug. 19 in response to a question about abortion in the case of rape

To most this quotation sounds bizarre/offensive/obscene, so much so that leading conservatives have pleaded with Mr. Akin to step aside so that another candidate can be put on the Missouri ballot.

As the father of two daughters, Mr. Akin’s statement completely disqualifies him in my view. But he is not alone in those views, they have a history in the pro-life movement.

The extreme position of outlawing all abortions in all cases is not widely supported. Exceptions in the case of rape or threats to the health of the mother enjoy broad-based support and are currently constitutionally necessary in any law restricting abortion.

Kristen Luker, in “Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood” published in 1984, carefully described and analyzed the worldviews and strategies of both pro-choice and pro-life activists. Exceptions are unacceptable to the pure pro-life ideology. The fictive female biological response to “shut that whole thing down” was once a common response of pro-life activists to this moral/ethical dilemma. Luker writes: “Most of the pro-life people [activists] we interviewed said that women who are raped simply don’t become pregnant very often, and many of them said they thought this was because something biological happens to rape victims that precludes the possibility of pregnancy.”

This view may not be as widespread as it once was because ardent holders of pro-life views today see the hand of God in pregnancies resulting from rape. Sharon Barnes, a Missouri GOP activist, is quoted in defending Mr. Akin, “If God has chosen to bless this person [the rape victim] with a life, you don’t kill it.” In short, pro-lifers have substituted a narrow religious interpretation for their former bad biology.

That pregnancies following rapes are rare is because of how rape victims are medically treated. Those rape victims that come forward and accept treatment are given powerful “morning after” drugs thus preventing pregnancies. Yet current efforts to define personhood beginning at conception would effectively outlaw those procedures. Such pregnancies would be justified as God’s will or “a blessing” as a matter of public policy. By such logic, a woman resisting a rapist could be resisting “God’s will.” Is that next?

In Indiana, current law provides that a rapist father can claim custody of his child (I believe this is the case in 30 other states). In Indiana, current efforts to change that law are running into opposition.

Before Mr. Akin uttered “legitimate rape” he framed well the moral conundrum, “Well you know, people always wanna try and make that one of those things, well, how do ya, how do ya, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question.” He followed with the sentence that caused the firestorm.

He is correct in part; it is a “tough sort of ethical question.” Yet, he and his fellow believers avoid the tough ethical question by inserting the active hand of God or myths concerning female biology.

These extreme positions are those of a relentless, relatively small, but politically well-organized and funded group, which is, in effect, forcing its extreme, religious views on America. There are many religions as well as religious individuals who do not share these views, including many Christians, Jews, Muslims, not to mention atheists. Indeed, the views of the extreme pro-life movement mirror closely Theravada Buddhism. I suspect that if the justifications for banning abortion were in terms of “karmic sin,” “karmic rebirth,” and thus “consciousness begins at conception,” that those views would not be acceptable as public policy, but perfectly acceptable as an individual’s way to decide these thorny ethical and moral dilemmas for themselves.

Women who are raped and perhaps become pregnant must actually wrestle with that tough ethical/moral question. Imagine that she and her husband are trying to get pregnant. Taking the morning after pill might end what they are trying to make.

It is individuals who eventually must decide and it is they and their families who bear the cost of those decisions. A public policy, albeit clean and simple (no abortions under any circumstances), takes that tough decision away from the people closest to the dilemma and inserts justifications that many, perhaps most people, do not believe in. It is imposing religion through public policy.

Let those who believe in “no abortions under any circumstances” follow that belief. Proselytize others into sharing that belief, if they must, but it is fundamentally anti-American to force religious views, through the State, down the throats of people who disagree. It violates religious freedom.

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@indstate.edu.

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