Is It Really Best for Women If Akin Withdraws? Questions About a Defining Moment

This weekend, Missouri Representative Todd Akin justified his opposition to a rape exception for abortion by claiming that women don’t actually get pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape.” In doing so, Akin was parroting an outlandish and wholly medically-inaccurate claim persistently made by the Christian right to undermine rape claims generally and access to safe abortion care specifically.

Now, Akin is under fire from some quarters of the GOP to drop out of the race and allow another candidate to challenge Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. (Others, such as the Family Research Council and fundamentalist Christian activist Bryan Fischer have supported Akin.) Some women’s rights advocates also are calling on him to resign.

But is forcing Akin out the best strategy? I am not so sure. I think that what Akin has done is given the women’s rights movement and all progressives a gift and we should take it with open arms.

Because the fact is that Todd Akin said what the GOP meant. He is no outlier; he actually is in the mainstream of what the current GOP stands for. But since this is an election year, the GOP wants to tamp down the war on women… at least until November 4th.

And the fact is that this is about rape and violence against women in the specific sense, but it is also about something much more profound… the violence against women of a political movement that seeks to deprive them of their fundamental rights to decide whether, when, and with whom to have a child and under what circumstances. And that is the battle we have an opening to fight.

A quick look at history. On May 4th, 2011, an overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives–235 members–voted in favor of H.R. 3, which they called the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” and we called the “Let Women Die Act,” because one aspect of this wholly offensive bill allowed hospitals, clinics, and even doctors to refuse not only to provide an abortion even in cases where the woman would otherwise die, but also to allow them to refuse to refer her for emergency care. In plain language, let her die.

The original version of that bill also included language that would have redefined rape, including the term “forcible rape” as the yardstick for what constituted “real rape” according to the GOP and Tea Party. An outcry ensued, and the language was dropped… for a time. It was, however, brought in later through the backdoor and became part of the final bill. In effect, the GOP’s premise is that the only “legitimate rape” is a “forcible rape,” one that occurs when a virgin, “good Christian” mother or woman, or otherwise “innocent” woman is carried away by a stranger at knife or gunpoint. This definition by extension would have eliminated date rape, marital rape, intimate partner rape, the rape of a sex worker, the rape of a woman too inebriated to give consent, and other forms of rape as “legitimate” forms of rape. It dismisses the reality that most rapes of women are committed by people they know. It is also no coincidence that the right wing wants to deny women in the military who have been sexually assaulted assistance for abortion care in the case of rape, and that some in the right wing have outright blamed service-women for being raped in the first place.

H.R. 3 epitomized the effort to redefine rape in law. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Daily Beast:

Under H.R. 3, the only victims of “forcible rape” would qualify for federally funded abortions. Victims of statutory rape—say, a 13-year-old girl impregnated by a 30-year-old man—would be on their own. So would victims of incest if they’re over 18. And while “forcible rape” isn’t defined in the criminal code, the addition of the adjective seems certain to exclude acts of rape that don’t involve overt violence—say, cases where a woman is drugged or has a limited mental capacity.

Akin’s ineptitude in describing his position was a “political” mistake but not a mistake of substance. He was merely stating what the GOP writ large believes and has in effect been trying to pass into law… a redefinition of what constitutes rape to what the hard-line Christian right and extremist right-wing legislators see as “legitimate” rape. With Romney and Ryan in the White House and a Senate and House in the hands of the GOP, this law would easily pass, whether or not Akin is elected.

So I think a part of any strategy to make clear what is happening in this country must include the issue of redefining rape, but must–absolutely must–go further or we will lose an opening to take back the conversation on the most fundamental rights of women to control their own bodies.

Take a moment and add up all the ways in which the GOP and Tea Party–with the help of numerous Blue Dog Dems–have been foreclosing on women’s reproductive options at the state and national level for years. They’ve been attacking contraception, misrepresenting emergency contraception, outlawing or making inaccessible early medication abortion, closing clinics that provide safe abortion care, passing 20-week abortion bans based on medical lies.

Taken together, this list equals one thing and one thing only: A fundamentalist agenda to force women to carry any and every pregnancy to term. A Forced Pregnancy Agenda. A death by 1000 cuts of women’s rights to make the most profound life choices. The angry response to the question of “legitimate,” “forcible,” or “redefined” rape is only a part of this, a necessary but not sufficient response to Akin.

Talking about “exceptions” also is a part of the far right strategy; first to admit that in their eyes there are “some valid exceptions” for abortion, and then to shift to the claim, as they have been doing in recent years, that no exception is valid. Likewise, first anti-choicers were against so-called “late” abortions, but now are attacking even emergency contraception, which prevents pregnancy, and all other forms of contraception, never mind just abortion. It will never stop. And the more we engage in debates on their terms–exceptions, what is rape, etc–the more we will lose, because each time we are playing on their home field.

We have to have the courage to be clear on our position: In the end, the only person whose decision it is on whether to bring a child into the world is the woman who carries it. And we have to employ that courage right now.

Only by making the Forced Pregnancy Agenda clear can we being to turn this conversation around.

And this is where the opening is. If Akin drops out, he will be replaced by someone equally as anti-choice but with a smoother tongue, a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. The controversy will wane. With Akin running, that question stays alive, and can be used to pin down every other right-wing GOP, Tea Party, and anti-choice Democrat running for state and national office throughout the rest of the election.

Take Mitt Romney, who issued a softball rebuke to Akin. Why? Because Romney knows that this is the agenda of the GOP, and he knows women will react forcefully to his real agenda on women’s rights, which he has tried to obscure during the primary process and into the convention by taking so many different positions on contraception, abortion, and other issues of concern to women they are difficult to track.

But Romney has to be asked how he can condemn, however softly, Akin’s comments when Congressman Paul Ryan holds the same views? Ryan was a co-sponsor of H.R. 3. He also co-sponsored the “Sanctity of Life” Act, a federal personhood law which, by declaring a fertilized egg a person would outlaw all abortions, many forms of contraception, in-vitro fertilization and many other interventions. This is the same formula that was used by officials in the Dominican Republic to deny cancer treatment to a pregnant 16 year old, who died last week as a result.

What about the other 235 Republicans and 17 House Democrats that voted for HR 3 and these other bills? Are we asking them whether they support redefining rape, allowing women to die, outlawing contraception and in-vitro fertilization? Do they support forced pregnancy?

And excuse me, but enough with the “pro-life” bullshit. There is no “pro-life” discussion here. You are not “pro-life” if you want to deny human rights to women. Period. I’ll say it again: In the end, the only person whose decision it is on whether to carry a pregnancy to term, to bring a child into the world, is the woman who carries it and those people she wants to involve.

Every single one of those running for office today should be pinned down on whether and why they support a Forced Pregnancy Agenda through tactics such as changing the definition of rape and denying women access to contraception and abortion. Do they believe women should be forced to carry pregnancies to term?

The outrage generated by the term “legitimate rape” is justified but should be equally focused on illuminating what is clearly a longer-term right-wing agenda in which Todd Akin is a somewhat hapless fool.

And we would be foolish not to force their hand.

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  • theprinterlady

    I am not sure that the war against the “war against women” can be won merely by saying that the person who is pregnant gets to make the decisions. 


    The right to contraception and abortion were based on the premise of privacy. This is the one thing that seems to be getting lost. When we lose sight that it is a woman’s right to have privacy in her reproductive decisions, we get into a “morals” issue, which cannot be “won”. People who think abortion is immoral will always think its immoral. The issue should be… do they even have the right to know what I am taking for birth control (and why), and do they have the right to know if I choose an abortion (or why).  The constitution states that this is a matter of privacy, not a matter of “rights” to either contraception or abortion. Yes, those things are now legal (which they weren’t before), but the actual “right” at stake is the right to privacy. These are private decisions, which should be made privately, and without interferrance from others. It’s just none of their business.

    That – in my opinion – is the basis that we need to keep pushing. No, my employer should not be able to find out what kind of contraception (if any) I’m using. It’s none of his/her business. No, nobody should be able to find out if I have an abortion (or why). It’s private. THAT’s what’s guaranteed under the constitution… and if we aren’t careful, THAT’s what’s going to be taken away. Contraception, abortion, a reversion to women being on trial for their own rapes…. all that follows the lack of privacy. 

    Just my opinion (from someone old enough to remember when it was not always so).


  • jodi-jacobson

    But you are talking about a legal strategy and I am talking about a political and framing strategy. Careful polling shows that the majority of people do NOT want to make these decisions for other people no matter their stated stance on the issue. The right has shaped this conversation by staking out their positions and holding to them for years.  We need to do the same. Moreover, I don’t think these arguments are mutually exclusive, nor do I think that the privacy issue necessarily leads to a different conclusion.


    The question is: We will frame this only about rape and Akin, or will we challenge the entire premise on which these things are based?


    Best, Jodi

  • cmarie

    I understand that if (as you fantatize) “Todd Akin said what the GOP meant” your job as a cheerleader for the Democrats would be a lot easier, but, (as you know) it is absolutely not what the G.O.P means.  If the G.O.P agreed with Akins they would not be falling all over themselves trying to get him to quit.  You do yourself no favors by pretending that your opposition is that far removed from reality and that easy to defeat.  In the short run it might make your boss at rh reality check or planned parenthood happy that you got your article in on time but in the long run it’s not going to be of any use because everyone, (including your readers) knows how anxious the G.O.P. is to distance themselves from him and his comments, because he’s crazy!!  Remember Scott Brown was himself a victim of sexual abuse as an adolescent and has no patience for these type of comments.  Be honest with yourself.  Take on the tough subjects with those you disagree with.  It will be worth it in the long run… even if your editor has to wait another hour for that article. 

  • jodi-jacobson

    Then why did they try to pass a bill—with 235 GOP votes–that put this “legitimate” rape issue into law.


    the only reason they are running away from him now is becasue they are doing really poorly with women, and becuse this goes straight to the legislation that both Romney and Ryan now support.


  • jennifer-starr

    I wish I could believe that, Cmarie, but in light of all these laws they’re trying to pass I simply can’t buy it. Most if not all of them probably feel the way that Akin does, though they might not say it in public.   The only reason they’re running away from his comments is to try and boost their own reelection chances.  

  • colleen

    If the G.O.P agreed with Akins they would not be falling all over themselves trying to get him to quit.

    We would have to be  as willfully ignorant as a Republican trophy wife to fall for that line of reasoning. It’s an election year. The morons at the GOP have a considerable gender gap. I guess they must have finally realised that not all women are as stupid and vicious as the women who embrace what they’ve been trying to shove down our collective throats in Congress and in all the state legislatures.The entire GOP has become a fetid cesspool of greedy, climate change deniers, birther conspiricists, NRA bullies and racist, woman hating dingbats. Noone believes that political cesspool will be easy to defeat but it helps to point out how batshit crazy and genuinely disgusting they are.



  • pamelack

    Akin does not represent the GOP mindset, only an idiot would believe that. He most definitely is an outlier….the man wants to take away school lunches as well. He’s a dinosour, completely out of touch. He should step down, he’s hurting the GOP and should separate himself for the good of the party. He does not represent how the GOP feels, except for a tiny, nutty minority.


    The Democrats know this, any sane person knows this, which makes it all the more disgusting how they are trying to spin this so the mud splashes on Romney.

  • thalwen

    We get outraged when people say something ineptly – like when Akin refers to “legitimate rape” or Limbaugh calls Sandra Fluke a slut for wanting to be treated equally in insurance coverage. We don’t get outraged when politicians routinely push personhood which would not only deny choice to every pregnant woman, but deny many forms of birth control and potentially put women in danger of prosecution for having miscarriages. We don’t get outraged enough when politicians want employers to have the right to pick and choose what is covered under the policy that you have earned with your labour. States are passing laws to prevent women from having medically necessary late term abortions and allowing doctors and CPCs to lie to women (in some cases forcing doctors to lie to women). There is an all-out assault on women, their health, their employment rights, their very right to be treated like a human being. We need to be outraged, not just about vile rhetoric but also that the vile rhetoric reflects their real legislative agenda.

  • bj-survivor

    Please, by all means, point me to the Republicans in our legislature who are pro-choice and not against taking away all social supports, including school lunches and food stamps. I’d be happy to find evidence that they’re not all homophobic, misogynistic, pro-oligarchy whachjobs.

  • colleen

    Akin does not represent the GOP mindset, only an idiot would believe that. He most definitely is an outlier….

    Gosh, you sound like someone who dores not want people to know that  Akin and Ryan co-sponsored legislation that , in part, redefines most acts of rape as ‘illegitimate’.   This year Republicans seem intent on offering up a Constitutional amendment criminalizing all abortion including those caused by rape and incest with no exceptions, not even to save the life of the woman (or raped child). Rep. Akin IS the GOP ‘mindset’. He’s been in Congress for 11 years and just won the Senate primary. The notion that he’s an outlier or unusual is a lie. He’s as mainstream GOP as they come.

  • ack

    cmarie, in close examinations of the race at hand, it’s clear that the GOP’s desire for him to drop out is a question of strategy, not of opposition to his views. The seat is viewed as the most vulnerable Democratic Senate seat. Akin was chosen in the primary over candidates who were favored by the party as a whole. If he drops out, the party gets to choose ANY eligible candidate. That person didn’t even have to run in the primary. 


    Considering the national personhood platform that the GOP is crafting yet again, and their efforts to redefine rape in recent years, their motivations are transparent. This is about gaining control of the Senate. They used his comments as a springboard for something they already wanted: his withdrawl from the race in favor of a more electable candidate.


    It’s a PR move to denounce him and call for his resignation. It makes them look like they care about rape victims while blatantly running bills supporting the distinction he made: there’s “real” rape, and then there’s something else. 


    Edited to correctly identify the politician instead of the American Idol star. It’s been a day. :)

  • ack

    thalwen, do you feel like we’re moving closer to outrage about the “minor” restrictions on abortion? I’m speaking as a woman on the cusp of the millenials; I’m almost 30. I became active when I went to college, and while I knew a lot of other women who cared about this issue, it wasn’t on the forefront of their politics. This has resulted in the slow, methodical, and unfortunately successful chipping away at reproductive rights. But I also feel like over the last few years, the right has become more aggressive, and has mobilized both recent waves of feminists as well as young people who don’t identify with the movement. Among progressives and independents, the attacks on contraception in particular are generally met with one of two reactions: either, “How DARE they?” or “They can’t possibly believe that.” 


    From my perspective, the issue becomes one of reframing. The pro-choice movement has been far better at messaging than progressives as a whole. But we MUST link the supposed fringe comments to the mainstream GOP. A political “gaffe” was once defined (and I’m paraphrasing) as a truth that you shouldn’t have told. Quite frankly, people like Akin DO represent the majority public opinion of the GOP. Their voting records make this clear.


    If GOP members honestly don’t agree with what he said, they need to step up, own their values, and tell the American people they will NEVER vote for a bill that attempts to limit access to abortion in the case of rape or incest. Period. End of story.


    And if they abandon those values and vote with the party instead of their values, both the media and the voters will hold them accountable. Let’s Norquist these people.

  • colleen

    Thank you ack, that is a most astute analysis. Makes all sorts of sense and answers some lingering questions.

  • sschoice

     One problem with trying to make the most of this as a teachable moment is that many pro-choice politicians aren’t going to want to do more than denounce Akins’ statements.

     It can be politically expedient to say “rape is rape” and not address issues of access in responding to his statements.  It’s more challenging to argue for abortion rights for all women, including women who aren’t rape victims, who don’t have health insurance, or who are minors.

     It would be nice to hear an elaboration of “abortion rights are abortion rights” but we’re not holding our breath.

     Remember the movie “Juno?”  Cute, indie minor female gets pregnant by a consensual encounter with a handsome, relatively sensitive high school athlete named “Paulie”?  Remember Juno’s high school girlfriend deterring her from terminating at a clinic staffed by a creepy clinic worker who jokes about blueberry pie?  Remember when Juno found a “baby wanted” ad in the local Penny Saver, or when Juno’s mom chewed out a judgemental obstetrics nurse, or when Juno wisecracked as she signed custody of her child over to a successful alternamom and groovy alternadad?

     Funny how it was so easy to script and sell tickets for a movie that advocated the interests of alternamoms and alternadads more than young women like Juno. 

     Funny how it’s so easy to script and sell voters on canididates who advocate the interests of middle-aged alternamoms and alternadads more than real adolescents like Juno — and Paulie, for that matter.

     If more people could be made aware of that while it’s happening, we’d have what Sol Gordon meant when he came up with the term “teachable moment.”

     If we can at least show more people that would be the case, it might not be very difficult to make it a funny teachable moment, too.

     —southern students for choice, athens