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Todd Akin’s Immoral Ethics About Women

US Rep. Todd Akin is a Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, USA. Akin thinks the US should not support the “morning after pill” (you’ll see why I’ve put that in scare quotes) – even for rape victims. I want to look at at his claims about rape and then about abortion.

Rape and “Legitimate Rape”

“Clarifying” his views that abortion must not be allowed even in cases of rape [see next section], Akin said:

“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.”

By Akin’s logic, presumably, all legitimate rapes do not lead to pregnancy since the “the body has ways to shut that whole thing down”. This means those women who have had children from rapes have not had legitimate rapes. What exactly, for Mr Akin, have they suffered? “Other” kinds of rapes? Why are we defining rapes as anything other than just rapes?

Presumably he is trying, very poorly, to discuss how a woman’s body tries to “fight back” against a traumatic invasion? I’m not sure.

Furthermore, by Akin’s logic, we must assume that perhaps it’s not rape at all when women experience orgasms during rape, since this is the body “welcoming” (as opposed to shutting “that whole thing down”)? This cannot be correct, since the trauma and horror of rape isn’t dependent on biological responses; it’s dependent on the trauma you experience. It’s wrong because a woman is horrifically violated, it’s wrong because it is not consented, it’s wrong because she’s being invaded in one of the most horrible ways it’s possible to be invaded.

Additionally, Akin repeats a standard line of pro-life logic, which uses terms like “attack” and “violence” and “child”. Firstly, we’re not talking about a child, we’re talking about a collection of cells that happen to be human (a foetus or blastocyst). This can mean, as you’ll see in the next section, either preventing those cells from forming at all or ending them after forming. We do say “attack” with regards to things in our body – we want to attack diseases and so on – but presumably we don’t think of this “attack” the same way we think of attacks on actual people. This confounds the words and makes it look like we are taking a weapon to a defenceless child. I’ll also explain later how Akin repeats a common misconception about pills.

What troubles me about this, however, is the idea of viewing rape as anything other than what it is. Akin should not be telling us what rape is and isn’t, what counts as “legimitate” rape and what doesn’t. This doesn’t mean we should never have (vaguely) similar discussions, but we should not be using this kind of description – for reasons I’ll shortly argue. I’m not saying we should arrest or censor anyone from these assertions, but if we want to discuss them, we must be reasonable and engage with appropriate language and ideas.

At the very least saying “it isn’t legitimate because of biological responses” is not a way to do this. This logic is as robust as the one that considers revealing outfits as invitations. It says: “This is not rape because her body was in a certain way [revealed by too little clothing, not “shutting down”, etc.]” But that’s not what defines rape or trauma.

The worst part, though, remains this: Akin’s logic leads to justifying acts of rape, since there are cases for Akin that highlight when it’s real rape. This implies there can be violent acts against women, where they are physically penetrated against their will, that are not rape. And this isn’t something we should ever support when it occurs, considering the harm rape actually has and, furthermore, the harm this reasoning can perpetuate among narrow-thinking men who already downplay rape, who think women are their property by definition, and believe they have a right to do what they want with women’s bodies. This is not reasoning anyone should ever support because such thinking underminines the impact rape has and will have.

As horrible as it is, rape will occur. And where it does, we need to think of it in ways that aids the women involved, not add to her misery by forcing her to continue to have the rapist’s child or deny that her rape was not “legitimate”. If Akin cares about people at all, he will rid himself of this term and its corresponding logic.


He also told Kansas City radio host Greg Knapp that “As far as I’m concerned, the morning-after pill is a form of abortion, and I think we just shouldn’t have abortion in this country.”

Knapp wanted clarity though, so asked the important question: “So just to be clear, though, you would like to ban the morning-after, totally for everyone?”

“Yeah,” Akin said. “I think that’s a form of abortion, and I don’t support it.”

His reasoning is the following: “Well, you know, the life of the mother, the situation there is one where I think what you want to do is optimize life. You try to save the mother’s life, you try to save the child… There are certain things, like you know you get a tubal pregnancy — where the child has absolutely no chance of surviving — and then you do the best you can to save the mother’s life. So, I think you optimize life, is the way I would probably describe it.”

Many will and have written about how this stance is incredibly hardline. The fact that anyone could make a rape victim’s life worse by forcing her to carry to term her rapist’s child is beyond, I think, most people. I doubt that even someone as extreme as Akin does not lose sleep by this prospect, but I do, to a small degree, respect attempting moral consistency.*

What I want to ask is: What does Akin mean by “life”? Presumably what matters for Akin, being a conservative Christian, is not all life: bacteria, rabbits, etc. What matters is human life. Furthermore, I don’t know what Akin means by “optimise life”. Here, we can only assume that he means mere biological life as opposed to creating a quality life. The quality of life of a foetus is not the same as the quality of life for a normal, rational adult woman. Both groups have life – in terms of working biological processes – but, again, so do bacteria and rabbits. Yet, that’s not a moral case or a sufficient justification to keep life going. If it were, then Mr Akin would have to oppose slaughterhouses and walking outside without a broom.

So then it must be to optimise human life. But why should we do all we can to have as much human life as possible? This means we can never use contraceptives, never masturbate, engage in sexual activities that do not lead to procreation, and various other activities that would undermine our autonomy as adults (all of which are religious doctrines for some – but it’s not State law!). It would mean every woman should be pregnant as much as possible; it means no monogamous relationships ought to exist, since being with only one partner limits the number of human life you can produce. I think then that it cannot be about creating as much human life as possible (ignoring, too, the horrible impact even more overpopulation would have).

If it’s not this, then his view of life must be about making a better quality of life. But for whom does quality of life matter? It cannot matter to an unthinking, unfeeling, unaware collection of cells that happen to be human. As we noted, being human is not sufficient for promoting it (indeed, I don’t need to make the case again for existing humans that want to end their life). So quality of life, even by any reasonable assessment of Mr Akin’s views must be about quality of life.

Yet this does not square with a universal opposition to pills that prevent life. I use that term, instead of abortion pills, because like “many hard-liners [Mr] Akin [has] conflated the fertilization-blocking morning-after pill with fertilization-ending abortion. But if Akin believes that life begins when an egg is fertilized, the morning-after pill poses no friction to his worldview whatsoever.”

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As Rawstory indicates: “Pills like Plan B… don’t stop fertilized eggs from attaching themselves to a woman’s uterus; instead, they delay ovulation, thus preventing eggs from interacting with sperm at all, or they thicken cervical mucus, preventing sperm from making their way toward the eggs.” There is no conception happening in these cases at all, thus if you think life begins at conception, this does not undermine this position.

However, that is not the full picture since, as I indicated, this is not sufficient for conservatives as actions, for them, ought to be focused on reproduction; life attains a special sanctity when its recognised as human. Even here, when there is no life even being allowed to start, I doubt it would matter morally for them since there’s little difference between this and the other (fertilisation-ending) pill: both prevent a child from occurring after a sexual encounter (I use child correctly, as in born, living, etc.). And I’m largely in agreement about the lack of distinction. I see little moral difference between a pill that prevents life from starting and one that ends it – at this early stage. There will be differences that we can discuss, but I think I share conservatives’ view that primarily both are aimed at preventing children. For me, this is something we should be glad about. For conservatives, not so much, though I haven’t seen a sufficient justification for why we need more humans or what makes mere biological life that happens to be human special.

See also this important article by Irin Carmon.

* One of best replies is famous in ethics literature from Judith Thompson, who even offers to oppose this view assuming that the foetus is a fully-rational person (which is not true by any reasonable argument). Thompson asks us to imagine a woman waking up, finding herself in a hospital attached to another patient, against her will. She discovers that the Society of Music Lovers kidnapped her to save the life of a famous violinist. The woman has the necessary properties to circulate her and the violinist’s blood for the next nine months, so that her kidneys could extract poisons from him.

The hospital director tells the woman: “To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Does the woman have a moral obligation to stay attached? For Thompson the answer is quite clear: no, though it would be incredibly nice of her to do so.

Image Credit: Andreas Grandin/Shutterstock


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