The XX Factor

Why Does Todd Akin Believe That Women Who Aren’t Pregnant Get Abortions?

Todd Akin, whose beliefs about rape and abortion are not random.

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

My post yesterday about previously unreported videos of Todd Akin’s speeches on the House floor had a lot of loony quotes from the Missouri Senate candidate, but the one that appears to have attracted the most attention was his comment that abortion providers—who he compared to terrorists—are “giving abortions to women who are not actually pregnant.” Likely this comment stuck out because, like his infamous “legitimate rape” line, it was a rancid mix of misogyny and profound ignorance about the female bodies Akin so dearly wishes to control.

Well, just as with “legitimate rape,” it turns out the belief that doctors are performing abortions on non-pregnant women has its roots in the ever-astounding world of anti-choice mythology. Robin Marty of RH Reality Check, where I also contribute weekly, reports on one of the major sources of this claim, Carol Everett, who used to be a clinic worker and is now an anti-choice activist. Everett belongs to a grand tradition on the Christian right of true believers who claim to understand sin because they used to participate in it. (“Former terrorist” Kamal Saleem is a fine example of this bunch.) Everett’s conversion story is about her previous life working in an abortion clinic. Marty quotes Everett speaking to a Focus on the Family radio program in the ‘80s: 

There are two other things I’d like to talk about. There are women who come in and have abortions but aren’t pregnant. You may say, “Oh, that doesn’t happen.” Maybe you say that. It does happen. First of all, this woman thinks she’s pregnant. She’s scheduled herself for an abortion. She’s come in and her pregnancy test is negative. They have a woman that they have paid their advertising dollars to get in there. They want to do that abortion if there is any way. 

So they do everything they can to prove that she’s pregnant or has been pregnant. You say “has been pregnant?” Yes, if they can convince her that she has been pregnant, that she’s had a spontaneous abortion. She’s going to have to go into the hospital to have a D&C to remove the rest of the contents of her uterus. They will convince her to go ahead and have a procedure she doesn’t need that day. And it happens. Channel 4 [Dallas-Fort Worth] got it on tape—a woman that went directly from our office to a doctor’s office and the doctor told her that she [had] never been pregnant, and we had tried to do an abortion on her. I don’t know what percentage that is. I have no idea…

As Marty notes, there were some clinics in the ‘70s in Chicago exposed for unsafe and deceptive practices, including D&Cs on non-pregnant women, but those clinics were exposed and many closed. The Chicago clinics were an anomaly, and not indicative of how abortion is generally provided.

A little common sense should demonstrate why: In order for a scam like that to work, women would have to set up appointments for abortions without knowing if they’re pregnant. And they would have to do so on a regular basis in order for this to make any kind of financial sense for the clinics at all. In the ‘70s, when home pregnancy testing wasn’t readily available, that might have been more plausible, but nowadays most women who call an abortion clinic know for sure that they’re pregnant and have already made up their minds. To believe otherwise is to assume that women, or at least women who get abortions, are too stupid as a class to understand even the most basic things in life.

But this belief that women who get abortions are just bimbos being led by their noses by conniving abortion doctors is a mainstay in the anti-choice movement, as David Frum notes

The point being, I suppose, to present abortion not as a tragic consequence of life choices gone wrong, but instead as an act of exploitation imposed upon misguided women by a rapacious “abortion industry.” If you think about abortion that way, it’s easier to justify banning it altogether. The only problem is, thinking about it that way is an utter delusion.

While I disagree with Frum that abortion necessarily is “tragic” or that the one in three American women who will have abortions have made poor life choices (as opposed to understandable mistakes or had ordinary accidents), he nails exactly how anti-choicers describe the relationship between patients and abortion providers. Patients are routinely portrayed as dumb bunnies who, misled by evil feminists spouting off about sexual liberation, go off and stupidly have sex. Then they are assumed to be unwittingly fed to abortion doctors, who lure them into having abortions they don’t really want, only to leave them dried-out husks of women, depressed and ruined. The reality, which is that women actively choose abortion and most feel fine about that choice, is rejected because it conflicts with the anti-choice movement’s image of women as overgrown children in need of firm Christian male guidance.

The truth of the matter is that demand for abortion is high, and the number of providers is distressingly low. Doctors aren’t hurting for patients. They don’t need to resort to fraud to keep their doors open. On the contrary, many doctors continue to provide abortions even under the threat of violence and well past the average age of retirement because they fear what will happen to their patients if they aren’t around anymore to provide this service.