By Carol E. Tracy, Executive Director, Women’s Law Project
Republican Todd Akin’s astounding remark — inaccurate and insensitive on SO many levels — that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” is only the latest evidence of the twisted beliefs about rape, pregnancy, and abortion held by right-wing so-called pro-life legislators.
First, these truly are just beliefs. They are accepted and asserted without factual basis, proof, or even examination by any rational thought process, much less any rudimentary knowledge of human biology.
Second, Akin’s comment goes far toward explaining attitudes held by him and his ilk. This is interesting because there is a strong correlation between rape laws and laws restricting abortion.
Laws about rape and abortion originated with men for the benefit of men, collectively and personally. Women had no say in these laws, and therefore had no say over their own bodies and powers of reproduction. Motivated to assure male social dominance in all realms, the men behind these laws paid lip service to the need to protect women—as they continue to do now—but have no genuine concern for women, the lives they lead, the responsibilities they bear, and the decisions they need to make in their own interests.
Rape laws have an ignominious history. They were developed to protect male property interests. What property, you ask? An unmarried woman’s virginity. A woman’s virginity was considered the property of her father, which he then was permitted to give (sell?) to the man who would become her husband. Giving a daughter in marriage was a transfer of inheritance rights and property. Rape was the theft of that property. It was not an assault crime; the victim’s bodily integrity was irrelevant. The essential element was controlling female reproductive capacity to protect male property interests.
Rape was defined only as penal penetration of the vagina by force of an unmarried virgin. Penetration of any other orifice by any other body part or object and penetration of a married woman or a man was not rape. While vestiges of these archaic notions continue to exist in some of our state laws, massive law reform has largely criminalized behavior that involves unwanted penetration of body parts, without consent and without force, and regardless of gender. Significantly, within the last year, the FBI updated the definition of rape in its Uniform Crime Reporting system to reflect the broader definition of rape reflected both in current state laws and in public understanding of this heinous crime.
Restrictive abortion laws in America were similarly born of men for men. In colonial America and at the time that our constitution was written, abortion was perfectly legal until “quickening”, much to the chagrin of today’s strict constructionists. This was true until the last third of the nineteenth century. Restrictions developed out of two campaigns, both male-led and for male benefit. At that time, women’s gynecological and obstetric care was provided by other women who were midwives and homeopathic healers. In order to ensure their domination of the practice of medicine, doctors (almost entirely male at that time) began to push women out. As part of this effort, the doctors claimed that abortion was unsafe. While there was some truth to that—sanitary conditions in many kinds of medical procedures being haphazard and some concoctions sold to induce abortions being nothing less than poison – safety was not the doctors’ real motivation.
The second front was led by U.S. Postmaster General, Anthony Comstock, a fanatical latter-day puritan, whose personal religious convictions caused him to lead an anti-obscenity campaign against the transmission through the U.S. mail service of information about abortion and contraception. The efforts by the doctors and Comstock led to the enactment of laws criminalizing both the performance of abortions and the dissemination of information about contraception and abortion. In essence, men were controlling women by keeping them pregnant.
Todd Akin represents the ongoing drive to control women. He is ignorant and dangerous, and he is not alone. The 2012 Republican National Convention platform outlaws abortion entirely, without even mentioning rape. Make no mistake about it, people who have archaic ideas about rape and restrictive views about abortion are in fact motivated to control women’s lives and health.
You can learn more about changes in the definition of Rape and WLP’s work here.