In Defense of Trent Franks, Who Didn’t “Pull a Todd Akin”

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) holds a hearing about the ‘No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act’ on February 8, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

So: Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, possibly the most stalwart anti-abortion legislator in the House, is getting another bite at the apple. He regularly introduces a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks and write the concept of “fetal pain” into the law. In past years, he’s tailored the bill to cover only the District of Columbia, over which Congress has outsize legislative influence. This year, inspired by the Kermit Gosnell trial and its media play, Franks expanded the bill to cover the whole country.

The result is that anything Franks says is going to get covered. And Franks says things like this, in a committee hearing today—a hearing that will precede a vote on this bill, scheduled for next week.

Before, when my friends on the left side of the aisle here tried to make rape and incest the subject — because, you know, the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low. But when you make that exception, there’s usually a requirement to report the rape within 48 hours. And in this case that’s impossible because this is in the sixth month of gestation. And that’s what completely negates and vitiates the purpose for such an amendment.

The response from pro-abortion rights writers and activists could have been written blindfolded. “The latest Todd Akin is Arizona Rep. Trent Franks,” wrote Elspeth Reeve in a post titled “Trent Franks is the new Todd Akin.” Politico reported that “Democrats immediately pounced on the remark made by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing as reminiscent of comments made by Senate candidate Todd Akin last year.” As they should, really, because Franks’ issue is unpopular, and gives Democrats a fresh wedge in this year’s elections. (Voters pick a new senator from Massachusetts in 13 days.)

But this is a little pat. Not every comment about rape and abortion is a “Todd Akin” comment. In 2012 Todd Akin said something uniquely stupid, with roots in anti-abortion psuedoscience—that a “legitimate,” violent rape, being so stressful to the woman, was unlikely to cause pregnancy. That wasn’t what Richard Mourdock said in a debate for Indiana’s U.S. Senate seat; he said a child resulting from a rape was part of God’s design. It also wasn’t what Franks said here. He referred to “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy,” not the question of whether rape can cause pregnancy. “Incidence,” as Jonathan Chait pointed out before I could, means the rate of something occuring. Franks was chiding Democrats for making every abortion debate about the most controversial aspect of abortion rights, arguing that 1) it was an outlier and 2) his bill wouldn’t affect that.

So, that’s where the pummelling of Franks goes wrong. He’s still making a lousy case for his bill. He seems to be assuming that women would realize they’re pregnant around the time they report rapes. That’s a reach. He’s sticking with the classic “forcible/violent” definition of rape, implicitly nixing date rape from the definition. He’s also saying that a trauma occuring merely 30,000 times every year—pregnancy caused by rape—is a distraction. That’s ironic, because the gas in the engine for this push is the trial of Kermit Gosnell, who was performing illegal and fraudulent partial-birth abortions. Pro-lifers aim to prove that Gosnell wasn’t an outlier, that every late-term abortion is just as gruesome. If his crimes horrify you, if the worst-case scenarios make you think again, you should want to ban abortion altogether. I don’t think Franks sees the symmetry between that position and the honest positions of the pro-choicers.