Akin the Symptom, not the Disease

Republican Representative Todd Akin’s belief that women have the magical ability to repel a rapist’s sperm from their uterus has been the subject of widespread criticism, public debate and political furore in the United States. The now infamous remark – that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy – was made in a television interview aired on August 19 as part of his answer to a question asking whether women who become pregnant as a result of rape should be allowed to have abortions.
Shocking? Yes. Surprising? Hardly.

Akin has now said that he misspoke when he suggested that women have an inbuilt mechanism to prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”, thereby making abortion for victims of rape redundant, and made his insinuation that there exists a type of not-so-serious rape, invoking the ‘lying slut’ trope. Even when viewed in isolation, these remarks are deeply disturbing and indicative of a gaping deficit of scientific literacy (“the female body has ways to try to shut down that whole thing”), compassion and tact.
Remember then that these words are not the words of a fringe type extremist, but an elected member of Congress and the chosen Republican nominee for the Missouri Senate seat. Akin is not alone in his views: he is very much a part of the mainstream Republican establishment. He has not said anything divergent from the Republican groupthink.

It being election season, Romney and the Republican power players have gone through the motions of disapproval, by publicly condemning Akin and calling for him to withdraw from his Senate race. Akin has steadfastly refused to do so, but he did agree to stay away from the Republican National Convention. But really, it was not so much what he said, but rather how he said it. Other Republicans just prefer to speak through their legislative efforts.

Indeed, it’s not hard not to be cynical about the motivations of the Republican Party in their denunciations when their official platform since 2004 has been a complete and unequivocal ban on abortions, even for victims of rape. Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan and Todd Akin were co-sponsors of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”, which originally tried to alter the definition of rape to “forcible rape”.

Akin’s remarks have taken on far greater, and probably longer lasting, significance than the offensive ramblings of a singular Republican Congressman. The “legitimate rape” comment has become politically toxic for the Republicans, evidenced in their mad scramble to distance themselves from it, the intense media coverage and scrutiny and the swift backlash from critics in the media and political left. While Romney and Co. may try to characterise Akin as an outlier and his views as out of step with the rest of the Party’s, Akin is symbolic of deeper issues within the Republican Party. He is yet another canary in the coalmine for the extremism which has taken root among the Republicans.

It’s clear that the dignity of their Party rather than the dignity of women is the foremost concern for Republicans in light of this story. Too bad then that Akin’s remarks have opened a can of worms for the Republicans and shone a spotlight on their discourse about rape, abortion and women, putting in doubt their ability to uphold either.