Frame Game

Todd Akin’s Rape Fiasco

Abortion for rape victims isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a crime issue.

Rep. Todd Akin, the man nominated by Missouri Republicans two weeks ago to run for the U.S. Senate, has an interesting idea about the female reproductive system. Yesterday on KTVI-TV in St. Louis, Akin was asked whether abortion should be permitted in the case of a pregnancy caused by rape. He answered:

From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.

Todd Akin, member of the United States House of Representatives.
Todd Akin, member of the United States House of Representatives.

Photo by United States Congress via Wikimedia commons.

Denying rape survivors a right to abortion is hard to defend. Challenging whether reported rapes are “legitimate” is downright retro. And the suggestion that getting pregnant means you weren’t really raped is so stupid and offensive it’s almost unbelievable, even for a congressman. Within hours, Republicans recognized that Akin had created a huge, potentially fatal political problem with women.

Actually, the damage goes deeper. Abortion for rape victims isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a crime issue.

Rape has always played this role in the abortion debate. If you’re a pro-choice candidate running against a pro-lifer, you can motivate your base by talking about women’s rights. You can pick up some independents by arguing that the government shouldn’t interfere in private decisions. But to cut into your opponent’s support—to pry away voters who are socially conservative—you need a sharper angle. That angle is rape.

The logic is brutally simple. Rape victims didn’t choose to have sex. This exempts them from the common conservative notion that women should live with the consequences of their choices. And this exemption, in turn, transforms the virgin/whore dichotomy into a weapon against pro-lifers. It also turns the culture of law and order against them. It puts them in the politically untenable (though morally consistent) position of defending the result of a violent crime. That’s why Akin bought and peddled the idea that “legitimate” rape victims can shut down pregnancy. Pregnancy from rape violates his righteous understanding of nature.

Over the years, dozens of pro-choice politicians have exploited this angle. I’ll quote just two of them. Here’s President Clinton in 1995: “It’s one thing to say that the taxpayers should not pay for a legal abortion that arises from a poor woman’s own decision. That’s one thing. Quite another to say the same rules apply to rape and incest.” And here’s Rep. Steny Hoyer (now the House Democratic whip) in 1989: “God was gracious. And Willie Horton did not impregnate that woman that he raped in Maryland. But if he had, colleagues, if he had, which one of us would have stood before her and said, ‘Carry Willie Horton’s baby to term’?”

Does abortion for rape victims really connect with law-and-order voters? To check the data, I went to the University of California’s Survey Documentation and Analysis site, where you can run customized cross-tabulations using the multidecade General Social Survey. I started with the GSS rape question: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if she became pregnant as a result of rape.” For comparison, I selected an identically phrased GSS question about a scenario in which “the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children.”

I found three GSS crime questions that, when cross-tabulated against the abortion queries, yielded samples large enough to analyze. One question asked whether we spend “too much, too little, or about the right amount” on “halting the rising crime rate.” A second question asked whether courts “deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals.” A third question asked whether you “favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.”

On the issue of abortions for low-income families, respondents who said we spend too little money on crime control were no different from those who said we spend too much. Both groups opposed legal abortion in that scenario by 53 to 47 percent. When the scenario was changed to rape, the numbers shot upward. The group that wanted to spend less money on crime control endorsed legal abortion by a margin of 77 to 23 percent. But the group that wanted more money for crime control became even more supportive, endorsing legal abortion by 83 to 17 percent.

I wondered whether the money aspect was skewing the numbers. Maybe the group that wanted to spend more money on fighting crime included too many liberals. But the second question, which focused on harshness rather than money, yielded the same pattern. In the low-income scenario, liberal respondents—those who said courts deal too harshly with criminals—were more supportive of legal abortion than were respondents who said courts aren’t harsh enough. The bleeding-heart group split 50-50, while the law-and-order group opposed legal abortion by 55 percent to 45 percent. But when the scenario switched to rape, the factions switched positions. Support for legal abortion rose to 81 percent in the law-and-order group, two points higher than in the bleeding-heart group.

Even the death-penalty crosstab showed a similar gap. Here, you’d expect an anti-abortion boost from pro-lifers who oppose all killing. Indeed, in the low-income scenario, death-penalty foes opposed legal abortion more than death-penalty supporters did, by about five points. But when the scenario changed to rape—a shift that’s logically irrelevant from a purely pro-life point of view—the spread increased. While support for legal abortion jumped by 31 points among death-penalty opponents, it jumped by 36 points among death-penalty supporters.

I ran one more crosstab, this time against the main GSS question on premarital sex. The question asked: “If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” As expected, respondents who opposed premarital sex also opposed abortion. But they were also more affected by the rape scenario. Among respondents who said premarital sex was “not wrong at all,” support for legal abortion rose by 29 points when the scenario shifted from low-income women to rape. Among respondents who said premarital sex was “sometimes wrong,” support for legal abortion rose by 34 points. But among respondents who said premarital sex was always or almost always wrong, support rose by 41 and 43 points, respectively.

That’s the power of the rape scenario. It’s a wedge into the Republican coalition, driven by themes of crime, justice, and sexual innocence. Akin’s opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, hammered those themes in her response to his gaffe: “As a former prosecutor, Claire McCaskill has worked closely with hundreds of rape victims and intimately understands their trauma and pain.” She added: “The ideas that Todd Akin has expressed about the serious crime of rape and the impact on its victims are offensive.” Meanwhile, Akin scrambled to reassert his law-and-order credentials: “Those who perpetrate these crimes are the lowest of the low in our society and their victims will have no stronger advocate in the Senate to help ensure they have the justice they deserve.”

Poor Akin. Insulting women is bad enough. But when you also look soft on rape and hard on victims, it’s time to shut the whole thing down.