When Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., righteously declared that women don’t get pregnant from real rapes, I was less shocked by Akin’s stupidity than by progressives who were unaware that possibly millions of people believe this tenet of the pro-life movement.
How else, after all, could the movement oppose abortion under all circumstances if it had not worked for decades to repackage medical studies and deceive its followers (including me) into believing emphatically that rape and incest are a woman’s fault?
Before becoming an observer of the ex-gay movement, I spent much of the 1990s at what is now Men Can Stop Rape, an organization that works with schools and fraternities to educate young men about something that they should have learned (but didn’t) from their parents and churches:
Namely, how to date women without sexually harassing them, and how to intervene safely and effectively when a male friend either harasses, or boasts of harassing, a girlfriend or classmate.
I learned through workshop interaction with hundreds of young high-school and college students that most young men have little awareness or concern for how they harm and insult women in their day-to-day interactions. Young men are raised with assumptions about their own entitlement and superiority. Then they frequently act on those assumptions in ways which shun intelligent and assertive women — and which selfishly exploit women who have been taught to be deferential. Then when it becomes time to pursue serious relationships, young men struggle to untangle years of conditioning and peer pressure which require them to not relate to women as equals.
Embedded as I was in the pro-feminist men’s movement that co-hosted these ’90s workshops, I had come along way from my sophomore year of college — when I was a volunteer for my Catholic university’s pro-life student organization.
You see, in 1984, I was a deeply closeted man trying to fit in among conservative Christian friends on the campus of a midwestern Catholic university. But I was also gradually extending myself to embrace liberal values of tolerance and basic human rights. I believed that women were being compelled by social forces (some of them conservative) to have abortions when alternatives might suffice. And I wanted to address those causes of abortion instead of throwing the symptom (the crisis-stricken woman) in jail.
That view was not entirely welcome among pro-life ideologues. Not everyone was interested in providing women with alternatives if those options required taxpayer funds. Nor if those alternatives involved contraception, especially the then-unmentionable C-word (condom). Not everyone saw a need to consult with experienced rape-crisis clinics — we could talk down to rape victims just fine, thank you — nor did some pro-life classmates or Right-to-Life reps see an imminent need to challenge employers who fire their pregnant employees.
Students felt little obligation to stand in solidarity with rape survivors. Why bother? We had learned “facts” that made any compromise unnecessary: Facts shared in Christian ethics classes and relayed down to us from National Right to Life. Morally righteous religious authorities, who claimed to have medical expertise, informed us:
- selfless moral conservatives love pregnancy, while me-generation liberals are less-than-trustworthy with children
- genuine “assault rape” causes a woman to miscarry any unfertilized egg
- women are complicit in most so-called rapes
- abortion causes breast cancer, which is God’s punishment
- government is the problem, not the solution
In fact, Republicans got in trouble way back then over the exact same myth cited by Rep. Akin.
In 1980, attorney James Leon Holmes wrote a letter advocating a constitutional ban on abortion. In the letter, Holmes wrote, “Concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.”
In 1988, Pennsylvania Republican state Rep. Stephen Freind declared confidently that real rape causes temporary infertility. He knew this because some D.C. think-tank told him so, citing via footnote a mysterious “Dr. Mecklenburg.” This is what passed for right-wing medical expertise then; these days, conservatives seek out groups such as Physicians for Life to provided slanted facts.
How little things have changed.
Then and now, some Christian Rightists were redefining rape in order to blame the victim.
Then and now, political operatives like Dr. John Willke were cherry-picking data and manipulating half-truths, repackaging proven harmful untruths into “common sense” moral certainties.
Then and now, extremists dressed un-Christian, unfree, and socially destructive positions with words like “Biblical” and “faith, family, and freedom” in order to soften the impact of their hate — and to rationalize a sense of self-superiority which was sufficient to disregard better-informed and more-truthful viewpoints.
Then and now, reducing the prevalence of abortion is not a true priority for many people if it requires financial sacrifice, ideological compromise, or an admission that one’s own ideology steers women toward abortion instead of away from it.
And then and now, a small industry of faux medical think-tanks — such as Physicians for Life, the American College of Pediatricians, and NARTH — serve as paid front groups to bless deeply flawed and corrupt ideologies.
The resulting echo chamber of unchecked myths and religious self-satisfaction has reinforced a substantial national subculture in which politicians like Pennsylvania Republican central committee member Sharon Barnes can publicly declare that God blesses rape victims with pregnancy — and she’ll probably be re-elected because of that unglued proclamation, not in spite of it.
Know this: Rep. Akin meant what he said. He meant it because many of his constituents share his beliefs. He meant it because he has made many similar statements. He meant it because pro-life leaders have been saying it since 1980. And he meant it because, nearly a century after the dawn of modern feminism, most men still view women as unequal and sexually suspect.