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.
Follow Jodi Jacobson on Twitter, @jljacobson