“Legitimate rape,” moral consistency, and degrees of sexual harm

By Brian D. Earp

See Brian’s most recent previous post by clicking here.

See all of Brian’s previous posts by clicking here.

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“Legitimate rape,” moral consistency, and degrees of sexual harm

Should abortions be allowed in the case of rape? Republican Todd Akin—running for the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri—thinks not. His reasoning is as follows:

From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.

There appears to be no scientific basis for the claim that the trauma of forced intercourse can interrupt ovulation or in any other way prevent a pregnancy; indeed pregnancy is just as likely after rape as after consensual sex, according to the evidence I have seen. This news article sums up the relevant data - though please note that one of my readers [see comments] takes issue with the standard interpretation of the most frequently-cited studies.

Let’s start, for now, then, with a bit of data that is not in question: thousands of pregnancies per year, in the U.S. alone, ensue from cases of reported rape or incest–either through the caveat of Akin’s theory that “maybe [the body's defenses] didn’t work or something” or through the medically orthodox explanation that the body has no such defense. Assuming that falsely reporting rape is relatively rare, as seems to be the case; and acknowledging that many rapes are never reported in the first place, we should be able to agree that pregnancies resulting from rape are a life-changing reality for thousands of women on an annual basis. By “rape” I mean any penetrative act done without clear consent; and here I’m calling attention to the sub-set of such acts that result in conception. I won’t say much about the term “legitimate” — which I find troubling in a hundred ways — simply because other writers have gone to town on it, and I want to say something new.

Now, given everything I’ve just said, what could be going on with Todd Akin’s moral reasoning for him to casually downplay the relevance of rape and incest to the abortion debate while maintaining, as he does, that there should be no exceptions to anti-abortionism even in those cases? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation:

The misuse of scientific information in support of one’s moral position is not new. When it comes to controversial and morally-laden issues such as abortion, it is difficult for people to separate their moral intuitions from their factual beliefs. With Akin, for example, his stance that abortion is fundamentally immoral (even in cases of rape and incest) is tightly wrapped up in his beliefs about the consequences of abortion and the science of female reproduction.

According to Liu, “moral coherence” refers to:

… the power our moral intuitions have to shape beliefs about facts, evidence, and science. Often, our intuitions about right and wrong conflict with well-rehearsed economic intuitions based on a cost-benefit logic. That is, it is often the case that a particular act feels morally wrong even though doing it would maximize positive consequences.

So how do people resolve this kind of moral conflict? In a paper with her colleague Peter Ditto, Liu suggests that people’s desire for moral coherence “initiates a motivated cost-benefit analysis in which the act that feels the best morally becomes that act that also leads to the best consequences.” Applying this logic to the Akin case:

Strong opponents of abortion, like Akin, argue that abortion is fundamentally immoral and should be prohibited. But what if the pregnancy results from a rape? This creates a problem for a principled moral position on abortion. Isn’t abortion always wrong? But is it right to make a woman live with a baby conceived from a violent, traumatic act she did not consent to? One way to resolve the conflict is to convince oneself that pregnancies from “legitimate” rapes are exceedingly rare. If this is true, then prohibiting abortion even in the case of rape really has relatively few costs because it occurs so infrequently. Thus, it is easy to see Rep. Akin’s views about rape and pregnancy (views that are held by many other anti-abortion activists as well) as emerging from his struggle to construct a coherent moral position on abortion that refuses to make exceptions for rape and incest.

The idea of “moral coherence”— a clear cousin of Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory—seems plausible enough, and Liu lays it out in a thoughtful, compelling manner. Unfortunately, this sort of fair-minded effort to understand how it is that an otherwise intelligent person could fall so far afield of reality is rare when it comes to political hot-topics involving moral disagreement.

Less constructive than Liu’s approach, though undoubtedly well-meaning, is that of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Here is their press release in response to the Akin affair:

Recent remarks by a member of the US House of Representatives suggesting that “women who are victims of ‘legitimate rape’ rarely get pregnant” are medically inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous. Each year in the US, 10,000–15,000 abortions occur among women whose pregnancies are a result of reported rape or incest. An unknown number of pregnancies resulting from rape are carried to term. There is absolutely no veracity to the claim that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.” … Any person forced to submit to sexual intercourse against his or her will is the victim of rape, a heinous crime. There are no varying degrees of rape. To suggest otherwise is inaccurate and insulting and minimizes the serious physical and psychological repercussions for all victims of rape.

This is a very different way to respond to Todd Akin’s misinformed moralizing. Rather than (merely) setting the factual record straight, or (as Liu did) supplementing those facts with a meaningful explanation of Akin’s medically unfounded viewpoint, the ACOG press release adds in some additional bits about how “offensive” and “insulting” Akin’s remarks are, while declaring that there are “no varying degrees of rape.”

I understand the sentiment behind these words. Rape disturbs me deeply. A number of people very close to me have suffered from sexual mistreatment, and I have dedicated a lot of time in my life, especially during my college years, to working with groups that aim to educate about this type of abuse and prevent its occurrence. But there are, I think, some hidden risks in responding to Akin’s argument in the precise manner done by the ACOG. I’ll start with “offensive” and “insulting” and get to point about “varying degrees” later.

If Akin is mistaken on his facts, then provide evidence of his confusion, so that your audience is equipped to rebut him (and others who make the same false claims) when debating difficult subjects such as rape and abortion. To declare that the man’s remarks are “offensive” and “insulting” detracts from the factual dispute, which is the arena in which ACOG is best poised to make a useful contribution. An individual person might, as the case may be, feel offended by Akin’s stupid comments—and many individuals do feel this way, and have good reason to—but to say, in some official capacity, that the statements just are offensive serves only to cloud what is really going on: Todd Akin’s moral view depends upon certain facts being such-and-so; yet the facts are not that way. His moral view is therefore indefensible. Offensiveness has nothing to do it.

Maybe that’s a minor point – and maybe I just don’t like being told that something is “offensive” or “insulting” or anything else in authoritative tones. I can make up my own mind about how to feel; what I want to know are the facts. The abortion debate in the U.S. – or anywhere – will not be resolved by taking offense, or by telling other people to do the same. We need to know what is the case medically, and then we need to try to understand where our opponents are coming from morally, what it is that might be motivating their reasoning (or their lack of reasoning), what can account for their ignorance, and how that ignorance might be replaced with knowledge.

The other bit of the press release that caught my attention was the assertion that “there are no varying degrees of rape.” I guess this is a response to the equally confusing, yet profoundly troubling (as I said before), notion of “legitimate rape” — which is probably meant to refer to rape that is particularly violent or traumatic, since on the discredited “rape shuts down pregnancy” theory, it’s meant to be extreme stress that triggers the body’s defenses. Even so, I’m just not sure what the “no varying degrees” phrase really means, and–whatever it’s intended to mean–I think it may unwittingly cause problems for anti-rape advocacy, as I’ll explain in a moment.

Rape is something that has to be defined, and it has been defined in a number of different ways across jurisdictions and points of time. The FBI used to define rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” Now it defines it as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The United Nations has its own definition, and so does the World Health Organization.

There are many different types of rape (on some classifications) which take into account things like the motivation behind the rape, the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, the context of the rape, the method of the rape, and so on. There is anger rape, power rape, spousal rape, stranger rape, acquaintance rape, friend rape, date rape, rape of children, statutory rape, gang rape, and a list of others. There are clearer and less clear crossings of the boundary of consent. There are more and less intentional violations of another’s sexual autonomy. It seems quite clear that a person’s physical and psychological response to rape might vary tremendously depending upon those and other factors, so the claim that “there are no varying degrees of rape” must refer to some other aspect of rape I haven’t thought of. Rape is not a unitary, metaphysical category: it is a value-laden, socio-legally defined phenomenon. Its causes are many and its effects are many. Rape is complicated.

Why does this matter? One reason is that people don’t realize the range of sexual acts, nor the range of situations in which they occur, that have the potential to cause serious harm to another person. To talk about rape as a monolithic thing that doesn’t vary—a self-evidently “heinous” crime that in all cases causes “serious physical and psychological” suffering—as the ACOG press release does, does much to play into the cartoon of rape that occurs in dark alleys, perpetrated by greasy strangers at gunpoint. Take this satirical skewering of Akin by The Onion as a case in point:

Pregnant Woman Relieved To Learn Her Rape Was Illegitimate

Though she was initially upset following the brutal sexual assault last month that left her pregnant, victim Martha Byars told reporters she was relieved Sunday to learn from Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) that her ability to conceive her unwanted child proves she was not, in fact, legitimately raped.

“Being violently coerced into having sex was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, so I take comfort in knowing it wasn’t actually rape,” Byars said of the vicious encounter in which she was accosted in an alleyway by a stranger, pinned to the ground, and penetrated against her will for 25 minutes. “It was absolutely horrific—I felt violated in the worst way imaginable—but thanks to Congressman Akin, I now realize it must, at some level, have been consensual after all.”

The intention of this satire is clear, and its grim point is more or less effectively conveyed. But it also highlights a problem with the discourse around rape in our society, which turns on a collective mental picture of rape as being the sort of thing experienced by The Onion’s Martha Byars. That’s not the only sort of sex that counts as rape legally; and it’s not the only sort of sex that causes problems morally.

When a person is penetrated sexually without consenting to it, the person doing the penetrating is very rarely a stranger. According to one source, the statistics break down like this:

- Someone with whom the respondent was in love: 46%

- Someone that the respondent knew well: 22%

- Acquaintance: 19%

- Spouse: 9%

- Stranger: 4%

So for sheer factual reasons, to begin with, we need to move away from the “stranger in an alleyway” model of rape, and think about the sorts of harm that can occur with nonconsensual sex between acquaintances, friends, or lovers.

The moral goal is clear. It should be that whenever sex occurs, both parties want it. On the far end of missing this goal is a violent attack at gunpoint. Somewhere in the middle might be a nonviolent, alcohol-fueled encounter between people who are newly dating and whose consent-signals are muddy or honestly misunderstood. And on the near end might be a partner who consents to sex even though he’s not particularly in the mood. Harmful sex—definitions of rape to the side—can take many forms, and the degree of harm is not the same across the board.

Indeed, the psychological impact of the various forms of nonconsensual sex might range pretty widely. And not necessarily in the ways that first come to mind. If a friend or partner pushes sex, for example, this violation of trust might have a profound effect on the victim—even more profound than if the pushy sex were enacted by a stranger. Furthermore, a lot of harmful sex occurs when the person doing the penetrating doesn’t think of the act as rape—since “rape” (“legitimate” rape?)  is the sort of thing that only scary criminals do while brandishing a knife.

If we want there to be less sexual harm in the world, then we need to think about the manifold ways that harm can come about, and contribute to a discussion of rape that gets men and women thinking seriously about consent in places other than alleyways. We need some nuance. While the ACOG statement was surely well-intentioned, its “offended” tone and its portrait of rape as something that doesn’t admit of any degree of anything, that is “heinous” in all instances, and that invariably causes severe physical and psychological harm, paradoxically calls to mind a model of rape—the “stranger” model used in The Onion piece—that obscures the more complicated harms occurring in the messy real world of sexual interaction.

So what’s my point? I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post with no single thesis in mind, so let me leave you with a few take-away considerations.

1. Todd Akin is (apparently) wrong on his facts. Traumatic sexual encounters are no less likely to lead to pregnancy than gentle, affirming, consensual intercourse.

2. Todd Akin is not (simply) an idiot who hates women. I don’t know Todd Akin, so I cannot say what’s in his heart. He clearly does have a motivated moral reasoning system, as each of us does, whose operation extends from certain—arguably objectionable—premises, to mistaken (even dangerous) factual conclusions, through the mechanism of something like Liu and Ditto’s “moral coherence.” My point is that we should try to understand what is going on in his mind, so that we can more effectively combat the garbage that comes out of his mouth.

3. It is important when responding to baseless claims to show the baselessness of those claims in measured, unambiguous tones, without deciding for our readers just how “offended” or “insulted” they should feel along the way. The debate over abortion involves a lot of shouting and name-calling, but we have to remember that we are all motivated moral reasoners, and that well-intentioned people can come to opposite conclusions about complicated subjects. If our opponent rests his moral case on a set of facts that do not hold, we should be very careful to get those facts as straight as possible, and press our opponent to defend his view on some other basis. And we’ll be much more persuasive to others who may share our opponent’s view, if we can determine why he was mistaken in the first place using theories other than “he’s an asshole” or “he’s a moron.”

4. We should be thoughtful about how we talk about rape. Both the ACOG and The Onion made earnest efforts to remind their readers of just how traumatizing rape can be, on their way to making a medical point about the relationship between rape and pregnancy. But they both—directly in the case of The Onion, and indirectly in the case of ACOG—reinforced a one-size-fits-all myth about rape, according to which it is fundamentally a physically violent, uniformly traumatic crime—the sort of thing that happens outside, in the middle of the night, and leaves its victim bleeding and bruised. Such rapes do happen, though they are comparatively rare. And that they do happen at all breaks my heart. But we have to remember that sexual harm goes way beyond those “alleyway” cases, takes many forms, and can be traumatizing in ways those cases don’t capture. Broken trust. A friendship violated. Consent not respected—by a spouse, or a lover you made yourself vulnerable to. We need to step back a bit from our definitions, and our taking-of-offense, and keep our eye on what matters. Sex should always be wanted. Harm should always be avoided. There are many ways to cause sexual harm; and let’s be aware of, and talk about, the gamut.

We need a little room for nuance in our public conversations—even if the topic is rape—lest we forget the point of our discourse.

———————————————————————————-

See Brian’s most recent previous post by clicking here.

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30 Responses to “Legitimate rape,” moral consistency, and degrees of sexual harm

  • Sarah Green says:

    I have a feeling that the reason why the ACOG say that “there are no varying degrees of rape” is because it seems that Akin may not see other types of sexual acts as harmful. Talking Points Memo ( http://2012.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/08/todd-akin-richard-mourdock-senate-republicans.php )notes that:

    Akin’s past includes praising a militia group linked to anti-abortion extremism in the 1990s and voting against creating a sex-offender registry in 2005. Back in 1991, as a state legislator, Akin voted for an anti-marital-rape law, but only after questioning whether it might be misused “in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband,” according to a May 1 article that year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via LexisNexis).

    • Brian D. Earp says:

      I think this is a reasonable interpretation – thank you Sarah. I expect the motivating reason is something just like that; I wanted to highlight, in my post, a possible unintended consequence of the sort of language used. Hope that was clear – but let me know if not!

      • elisa freschi says:

        Before reading Sarah’s comment I was about to write something similar. Your post is insightful, but I also think the ACOG’s reaction was aiming at proving that there are no “non-consensual sexual acts” which are not “rapes” (being raped by your own husband, whom you trust, is probably much worse than being raped by an unknown person, whom you could hope never to see again). The main problem here is that sexual abuse is the only crime where the victim has to prove her own innocence.

  • Hardik Panjwani says:

    Your article is well written. But here’s the the difficult part regarding points 2 and 3.

    You assume that the conversation is happening between two rational people when in fact this is not true. Let’s say you make an attempt to talk to Mr. Akin and present him with facts regarding the human reproductive system and try to get him to understand that he is mistaken.

    One likely outcome will be that the two of you will go around in circles and in the end he will still insist that he is right. For example, he might argue that in the case of ducks the female can control her reproduction to ensure that she gets pregnant by the drake of her choice and since humans are higher up than ducks we have this ability too.

    More likely situation is where he will try to obfuscate the matter and argue that the facts are not well established and there is room for both schools of thought right now, so he should not face consequences over expressing his opinion. (unrelated but relavent example: the Evolution vs Creationist debate) But it’s very unlikely that he will admit to being wrong as it will have bad consequences for his career, while rationally speaking, this is the right thing to do..

    This is a result of two things:

    1) Most people rarely like to admit their mistakes, especially in public and particularly when the end result is losing something you value. It takes a person who is humble enough to acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes sometime or the other and the honest thing to do is to correct your mistake when you learn you are wrong. I am afraid politicians are not make of this stuff.

    2) Americans, very rightly, do not associate formal education with social standing or success in contrast with places like India or China. However, the extension of this idea to the principle that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge’ is illogical. Clearly, Republicans do this a lot more than the Democrats and have gotten away with it for so long that they expect even really bad gaffes like this one to go unpunished. I am afraid solving this problem is going to be a very uphill battle, especially given the state of basic education in the US.

    • Brian D. Earp says:

      Thank you Hardik, for your thoughtful comments. Things are of course not as simple as just “laying out the facts” — especially in public discourse; but I think that couching facts in ways that may flame unnecessarily the political fires of the overarching debate might be especially counterproductive. In any case, take note of Rita’s comments below about the facts themselves. What if it were true that, indeed, physically violent rape, resulting in high levels of psycho-physiological trauma on the part of the victim, did, in fact, reduce the likelihood that pregnancy would occur? Akin’s moral view would still be problematic, by my judgement, but I wonder how you think the debate would change if those facts turned out to be valid.

      Best,
      Brian

      • c smith says:

        Even if you make a hypothetically case in which you assume that there is thruth to these statements (all medical and historical evidence have already disproven these assumptions), then the fact that you are forcing a women to stay pregnant and give birth against her will becomes a form of rape in it self. You are now asserting that your right to determine what she can or can not do with her body trumps her right to the sanctity of her own body. Regardless of how she became pregnant (and rape being the cause makes this more traumatizing) you can not in good concience claim that you or society’s right to use her body is should be paramount to her right to own her own body!

        • Hardik Panjwani says:

          Agreed. At the end of the day carrying pregnancy to term is a very personal decision and the state or its representatives have no voice in that decision. Personally for me, in a marriage the right of a wife to not carry to term or to not become pregnant supersedes the desire of the husband or of their families to have a child. After all it is her body that will be going though the experience. Sure, people around her will have their lives affected but her life gets affected the most during and after the pregnancy and that earns her the right to stop the process at any point before the child is actually born.

      • Hardik Panjwani says:

        Hi Brian,

        It may turn out that Mr. Akin is right and like Rita mentions the matter has not been studied closely enough to dismiss his claims. But the fact is that at this point of time they are only unsubstantiated claims and right now one cannot attempt to create pubic policy or restrict women’s rights based on these claims.

        Let’s say a few years down the road Mr. Akin turns out to be correct and women have this shielding ability. I am afraid that will be bad news for women’s rights, especially for the right to their own body. Right now Ireland is the only country to incorporate bodily integrity into its constitution, a development like this will certainly be a setback to get the right to bodily integrity to be incorporated into the US constitution. Coming back to women, it will make rape allegations more difficult to establish in cases where women who have been raped develop pregnancies, as an argument can be made that the sex was consensual to some degree and the pregnancy will be upheld as proof. By conflating the idea of consensual sex and reproduction one would then be able to say that the pregnancy must be carried to term , a further hit to women’s rights. The worst affected in this will be women in whom this shielding ability is compromised for some reason, they become victims of their own body and victims of society. And of course it is not particularly far fetched that people will misinterpret this shielding as women having control over reproduction, once again blaming them for have female children as opposed to male children (or vice versa).

        While the conservatives will be happy to have new ammunition in shaping society, the liberals will be further divided over these facts and will want to make degrees of harm even finer from a legal point of view. So the likely result from Mr. Akin being correct will be erosion of women’s rights and a more uphill battle for those of us who wish to uphold and extend those rights.

        But I take comfort in the fact that Mr. Akin is incorrect for now and most likely will remain so and hopefully change his point of view to the correct one.

        • elisa freschi says:

          It is also possible that the lower rate of pregnancies depends just on external factors, such as the fact that a rape is often consumed in a hurry and that the raper might not be able to ejaculate within the body of his victim. If this is the reason for lower rates of pregnancies, the result would be far from what Mr. Akin would like it to be: pregnancies would only occur when the raper is strong (and cruel) enough to hold his victim down long enough.
          I also wonder whether the percentage of women being on contraception while raped has been taken out of the data.

      • David Effler says:

        I had the same sentiments myself, Brian. In my research, I found that other female members of the animal kingdom have the ability to “eject” sperm if the mating was not to their liking (e.g., from a low status male). So it was seemed remotely plausible that the physical and emotional trauma of violent rape might in some way disrupt the sequence of events that allow fertilization and then implantation in the uterine wall. Now it appears that there is data that this is likely not true with humans, and that, perhaps, the opposite is true. However, even if Todd had found robust studies that strongly supported his point, however, he would still have exhibited astoundingly poor judgment by saying what he said. I think he should make a sincere apology and drop out of the election, concentrating on redeeming himself in future political involvement. Sometimes a person swallows a large dose of deserved humilitation to the improvement of their character. I do admire the degree of objectivity expressed by you and the other commenters. Even if a comment offends someone, I think it behooves us to first determine the veracity of an assertion with as much dispassionate objectivity as possible.

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    Hi Brian -

    This is a very interesting and thoughtful discussion of a tough issue. I agree that a measured analysis of the case like Liu and Ditton’s is certainly welcome (and quite persuasive). I think you’re being too hard on ACOG (and The Onion), though.

    Firstly, on claims of offensiveness and insultingness: Do you want a purely rational debate where individuals’ emotional reactions to competing empirical claims are not addressed? But that will lead to its own communicative problems – we would not be able to fully understand our interlocutors’ intractable resistance to certain views without also understanding the background emotions surrounding/motivating those views. Moreover, I think a claim being offensive or insulting counts against the claim, over and above its factualness. Consider: I (falsely) claim my friend’s hair is brown, vs. I (falsely) claim my friend is unintelligent. They’re both false claims, and my friend could react to either by trying to correct my error. But the latter, for various reasons, is more problematic than the former – it is (in many contexts, anyway) an insult. And it seems perfectly fair to point this out, as an extra reason the claim should not have been made/a reason that I owe an apology. Similarly, in the present case, not only did Akin make an empirical mistake that might be refuted, but also spoke in a deeply offensive manner, in a way that would frankly not be the case if he were (say) denying the existence of climate change (unless his means of doing so was to personally insult climate scientists…).

    Secondly, I think it’s important to focus on why the claim was indeed offensive. Part of it may be the false empirical claim about pregnancy rapes. But far more offensive, I think, was the insidious implications of ‘legitimate’. The way I understood him, he was essentially offering a pre-empt to statistics on pregnancy rates from rape: yes, but (many of?) those cases were not actually rape – the women were making false accusations, it was actually consensual, etc. Or, alternatively, he was making a value-judgment on the basis of pregnancy – the rapes where women got pregnant must not have been really bad, else they wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. And that is indeed offensive. Maybe that’s an unfair interpretation (and maybe he really did misspeak), but that’s how it sounded to me, and I suspect many others (this is certainly the idea behind the Onion piece). And it’s perfectly fair to point that out in public discourse.

    And thirdly, the idea that all rapes are equally harmful is perhaps not defensible (almost every type of harm comes in degrees), but that was not the main thrust of the ACOG statement (or The Onion). Instead, I think the idea is that all rapes do indeed count as incredibly serious, certainly ‘legitimate’ crimes. I suppose you want to dispute that rape is always heinous, but almost all the first-hand accounts of rape I’ve come across do indeed indicate it is an incredibly traumatic experience (though the nature of that trauma man indeed vary) – whether by a loved one or a stranger, whether violent or rape-by-fraud. This reminds me of the outcry over Whoopie Goldberg’s claim that Roman Polanski’s sleeping with an underage girl wasn’t ‘rape rape’ – the idea is that, all the cases that fall under the definition of rape are indeed very serious (putting aside whether some are more heinous than others), and those sorts of comments serve to perpetuate a public marginalization and belittlement of a very serious issue.

    • Brian D. Earp says:

      Owen, these are all fair comments. I don’t have too much to say in reply, because I think your criticism speaks for itself. Thank you for contributing to the discussion.

  • Mark Bailey says:

    Hi Brian,

    It’s always both fascinating and a pleasure to read your well-reasoned and deeply insightful essays. And I agree that in a Utopian society where all of our responses would be measured, your prescription would be appropriate and beneficial.

    But the artist in me — and perhaps in you too — wonders about the necessary role of the visceral response, as unpleasant or even as inaccurate as it may be, nevertheless honest and compelling in its reflection of the rhythm of our minds and feelings. What do we lose overall in life if we try to moderate and even censor that? I mean, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would be pretty boring and mundane if it were merely a series of statistical and well-reasoned exchanges among the characters.

    I wholeheartedly agree, however, that the follow-up to the visceral response must include exactly what you describe — just not as a prerequisite. For me, there’s important information in knowing just how outraged and furious many people were over these remarks, and how deeply it had impact on them. That also can assist us in our reasonable response.

    All best wishes,

    Mark

    • Brian D. Earp says:

      Wonderful to hear from you Mark, and thank you for joining the conversation! I like your reference to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — it helps make your point – but I think it also helps make mine: that play is trying to DO something to the audience — get them emotionally involved in the full richness of human experience — whereas a press release might, at least in some cases, be expected to be designed to DO something else — namely make very clear what the factual reality is, if that is what is in dispute. I did also say that my complaint about “offensive” and “insulting” was probably a “minor point” — and it’s for reasons like those you bring up that I didn’t want that to be the main thrust of my piece. What I’m really saying is: I take your point, and I think you’re right to make it. And, as always, you make it very well.

      Yours,
      Brian

  • Rita Joseph says:

    You might like to reconsider the factual accuracy of your first take-away consideration, Brian: “Traumatic sexual encounters are no less likely to lead to pregnancy than gentle, affirming, consensual intercourse.”

    The news article you direct us to for relevant data actually refers us to credible studies that have established pregnancy rates from acts of rape to be less than half the pregnancy rates from unforced intercourse. The one anonymous report from Mexico of a higher pregnancy rate (15%) from rape appears to be an extreme outlier, based possibly on dubious methodology.

    The 2003 Human Nature study quoted as relevant data appears to give credence to rather than to refute Akin’s claim that the female body may indeed have some ways (as yet not clearly understood) to try to shut down the whole thing. It appears that no scientific studies have yet provided an adequate explanation for the pregnancy rate from rape being, in general, less than half that from consensual intercourse.

    Yet the fact that pregnancy rates from acts of rape are consistently reported to be less than half of the pregnancy rates from unforced intercourse must have some scientific explanation.

    If we put aside the nonsensical ‘misspeak’ of “legitimate rape”, it is clear that many commentators have mentally removed the word “try” from Akin’s claim “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down”. This is misrepresented, for example, by the ACOG press statement above as “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down”, a very different claim. Implicit in Akin’s use of the word “try” is acceptance of fact that these ways are not 100% successful.

    There is another instance of intellectual dishonesty in the article you direct us to for relevant data in the dredging up of long discredited 13th and 19th century myths in the attempt to tie Akin’s claim to such nonsense. To assess the possibility of there being some truth in Akin’s claim, we need go no further back than the recent evidence stored securely in UN files regarding the appalling atrocities in the Bosnia/Croatia conflict. The documentation records the cases of 3000 women who were raped, many repeatedly, during the ethnic cleansing in Croatia, from which there were 119 pregnancies. This is an almost 4% pregnancy rate, which is less than a third of the pregnancy rate attributed to unforced sexual intercourse in the relevant data to which you direct us.

    How is this two-thirds discrepancy in pregnancy rates to be explained?

    Here Akin’s claim that the female body has ways to try to shut down the whole thing may be worth some serious scientific investigation, particularly in the absence of other credible or scientifically documented explanations for the phenomenon that has emerged–that the pregnancy rate resulting from acts of rape would appear to be significantly lower than from acts of unforced intercourse.

    Akin’s claim as to the ways of the female body, it seems, may deserve a lot more serious research before ‘legitimate’ dismissal.

    • Brian D. Earp says:

      Thank you, Rita, for alerting me to these issues. I have updated the post to flag your concerns until I have the opportunity to evaluate the original studies. If you have any references you’d like to send my way, please do so at brian.earp@gmail.com.

      Sincerely,
      Brian

    • elisa freschi says:

      I am not a physician myself and I am thankful for the data. But I cannot understand a point: Suppose there are every year 1,000 rapes and 4% of the women gets pregnant after her rape. This makes 40 women p.a., which is not an irrelevant number. Why should this rule out the discussion about abortion altogether? Akin’s other argument (the punishment should regard the raper, not the fetus) seems to me more reasonable (although I am not saying I agree with it).

    • Beppe says:

      In the Netherlands the pregnancy rate after rape is about 7% according to research. Use google translate, you will find the link to the pdf in this press release
      I could hypothesise what causes the discrepancy: most rapes in Croatia in occupied territories where people had already been suffering malnutrition and abuse.

  • Rita Joseph says:

    You are right, Elisa: even one woman who conceives a child through the horrific crime of rape is a relevant number–the equal and inalienable rights of every single member of the human family is one of the founding principles of our whole international human rights legal system.

    You are right too that in moral argument for or against abortion, there is no valid conclusion to be drawn from the numbers even supposing statistics can be established satisfactorily and even if physiological and psychological reasons for the discrepancy between pregnancy rates are posited and eventually proven beyond doubt.

    I agree with you too when you say that Akin’s other argument seems more reasonable. Indeed, I’m prepared to go further and say that both the mother and the child are completely innocent—neither can be blamed or punished ‘legitimately’ for the crimes of the rapist.

    And I take the same exception to a politician talking about “legitimate rape” as I do to politicians talking about “legitimate abortion” or “lawful abortion”. Both terms are nonsense terms for both involve acts of vioelence against innocent human beings.

    The death penalty is not applied to the rapist, so why should it be applied to an innocent unborn child?

    There is a long history of legal protection for the unborn child. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 6(5) and the American Convention Article 4(5) make explicit the very important connection between protecting unborn children and capital punishment. “Sentence of death shall not be carried out on pregnant women.”

    The maternal reprieve, an ancient rule of common law, recognized that the child in the womb has a right to life even when the child’s mother was thought to have forfeited through a capital offence her own right to life.

    If the unborn child is not to be executed for the crimes of his/her mother than neither should he or she be executed for the crimes of his/her father.

    In any case, abortion is a totally inappropriate response to offer victims/survivors of violence. It is indefensible to respond to their hurt with further acts of violence. Abortion is a ‘service’ that comprises per se another act of violence, this time an act of violence in which there are two victims, the hurting mother and her own aborted child.

    The selective abortion of her child on the grounds of social origin relating to the paternal crime of rape is based on prejudice not justice.

    We need to deal with this appalling social climate in which vestiges of public censure of acts of rape spill over quite irrationally to the pregnancies that result from these acts.

    Just as violence against women is never necessary, so too violence against children is never necessary. All violence against children is preventable.

    Before as well as after birth, children should never receive less protection than adults.

    Our communities have a duty to provide these abused mothers and their children with ongoing care in a safe environment.

    Each mother’s personal needs, her suffering and her anxieties can and should be addressed by non-violent means.

    • C smith says:

      “mother and child are completely innocent- neither can be blamed or legitemately punished fot the crimes of the rapist” However you are prepared to do just that! Many women do not want to become or stay pregnant by their rapist. They have feel physically violated every day they continue to stay pregnant. You are advocating that there is no problem withdenying these women the choice to terminate that pregnancy, so in effect you are forcefully punishing and continuing the rape she endured to satisfy your own views on human live. A ferilized egg that is prevented from inplantation is no more or less human then a skin scraping, yes it has human DNA but it does not have sentience or the the physical and mental ability to suffer the pain the woman does. Most abortions (esspecially those done after a rape) are in the first trimester and the fetus at that time is not a human being like the woman is and as such the womans feeling on this mater can and must supersede the fetus. Any abortions performed after that are because of severe abnormalities incompatible with life (so why force the woman to continue this pregnancy) or because the health and life of the mother are in danger (that should speak for itself! Why value a possible life over that of a fully formed existing breathing woman who will lose her live and the fetus when continuing this pregnancy)

    • elisa freschi says:

      Rita, thank you very much for your interesting insights in this discussion. I also appreciate your point (made elsewhere, if I am not wrong in attributing it to you) that good might arise from evil and that one can in this way help desperate women who have been raped and got pregnant to accept the rape’s fruit as their child. Still, would you forcibly make them have to accept it by law? Would not you be afraid of (as Lisa hinted at in her comments) of a raise in the rate of (dangerous) home-made abortions or new born babies being killed or abandoned? And what about the case of women who, after having been raped, would never be welcomed back in their communities (not to speak about finding/keeping an husband after a pregnancy due to someone else)? One can help them and offer them all sort of support, but what if they keep on wishing not to conceive a child from their raper? Could not one accept the intermediate solution of allowing the use of “emergency contraception” in the first hourse after the rape, in order to avoid a pregnancy and an abortion?
      Last, I recently read an interesting comment about the use of emergency contraception in the case of rape victims on the National Catholic Reporter. What do you think of it?
      http://ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/does-usccb-allow-use-abortifacients-cases-rape

  • Dev says:

    I really appreciate this article. It sums up a lot of what I’ve been thinking, not only about this particular issue, but about rape and abortion in general.
    I think part of the problem is the word “rape” itself. It has so many associations and history, and even with qualifiers, I wonder if it’s possible for it to not bring up the image you’re describing. Even without the qualifiers, the word itself means so many different things depending on who’s talking, a normal situation in language but a very dangerous one for such a loaded word. For example, there’s probably a massive difference between the meaning of “rape” as used in the ACOG’s press release and the meaning of “rape” where any case where there was not enthusiastic consent might be considered rape. I also feel that making it into an issue where someone either “wanted it” or it was “rape” – which our culture considers an unqualifiedly horrible act – makes it very difficult to deal, as a society and as individuals, with a large number of cases of sexual harm. For instance, when the harm is in the context of a relationship, having to choose between saying and/or convincing yourself that you “wanted it” and accusing someone you love of such a horrible crime must, I imagine, lead many people to choose the former. If the nuance of the language more closely (never exactly) matched the nuances of sexual harm, so that there were descriptions that did not have the horrific power of “rape” but still acknowledged the damage, people perhaps could deal (both practically and psychologically/emotionally) with the variety of situations more effectively. The problem, of course, is in inventing the descriptions needed and in getting the culture to accept them.

  • Lisa says:

    In response to Rita’s comments about the quote “Traumatic sexual encounters are no less likely to lead to pregnancy than gentle, affirming, consensual intercourse”- Perhaps the increase in pregnancy from consensual sex is due to the act being repeated throughout a woman’s fertile cycle, welcomed, in fact, for the purpose of reproduction. Perhaps the lower number of pregnancies from rape is from the random timing and the infrequency of the act. Perhaps the rape wasn’t vaginal.

    My biggest problem with the rape exception debate is the parsing of which pregnancies caused by which type of sex are the legitimate subject of governmental and societal control. Any pregnancy not intended and not wanted should be continued or terminated solely on the decision of the woman who is pregnant. I feel strongly that forcing her to continue an unwanted pregnancy is akin to rape itself as it forces her to submit her body to an unwanted physical situation. If people are against abortion due to their religious or moral objections they have the right to make those choices for themselves personally, but not for others.

    • David Effler says:

      You make some good points, Rita. However, my casual review of a few articles indicate that rape may be more likely to result in pregnancy. Possible reasons for this were discussed. Younger women, perhaps more likely targets for a rapist, would be in a more fertile period of their life. Although a woman of any age can be a victim of rape, it may be that younger women are more likely victims.

      Concerning the issue of rights of a woman considering abortion for any reason, I suppose the ethical/legal challenge will always be the right of the woman not to complete the pregnancy versus the right to life of the unborn. If the moment of conception is the beginning of life, then an IUD would constitute a very early term abortion as the device works by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall.

      I’m basically a pro-choice person, but I’m not sure if it is possible to ethically and legally resolve the issue of the right to life of the unborn versus the control of a woman over her own body. Unfortunately, biology is not always congruent with legal concepts of justice.

      No man can know what it like to go through the experience of pregnancy and delivery, and if they could, some male opinions on abortion might change. If they ever perfect a procedure for men bearing children, I would volunteer to do my duty, but I’m afraid I’m too old at this time. I do know that I would never vote to take away totally the right of women to have abortions.

  • Rita Joseph says:

    Lisa, perhaps in order to advancethe discussion here we need to distinguish conceptually between the ‘pregnancy’ as a natural process and the beneficiary of the natural process, the unborn child.

    So in a claim that any pregnancy not intended and not wanted should be continued or terminated solely on the decision of the woman who is pregnant, it is clearly the natural process only that is being considered for termination. Yet it is not just the natural process which is being terminated, is it? There is more being terminated here than just a process–the existence in utero of a vigorous new human being growing, developing purposefully is being terminated.

    Both reason and science confirm that the unborn child is already in existence, being protected and nurtured in his/her mother’s womb. With astonishing accuracy, we can locate the child within definite co-ordinates of space and time. The child is not to be dismissed as a generic, anonymous human blob. Even at this foetal stage, we can identify not only whether the child’s father is the rapist, but also whether the child is a son or a daughter. Let’s just say (to simplify the text and eliminate the constant need to use ‘his/her’, ‘he/she’) that the child we shall consider is a daughter. We can ascertain long before birth that this tiny daughter is a unique member of the human family, biologically, genetically, and genealogically.

    Her mode of coming into existence (through a father’s crime) surely cannot alter the scientific truth that this child is a genetically unique human being with the full genetic complement of a human being. As such, this human being is entitled to the human rights protections that belong inherently and inalienably to all members of the human family.

    And of course we can agree that (1) the unborn child is utterly innocent of her father’s crime and (2) she is also innocent of any crime against her mother.

    This tiny girl-child growing and being nurtured in her mother’s womb is exercising no sinister ‘force’ against her mother. Pregnancy is a natural biological process—if protected from the intentionally lethal force exercised arbitrarily by the abortionist to terminate the child’s life, most pregnancies will run a natural (unforced) course.

    No ‘force’ or violence is required to be exercised against the mother or her child in order to continue the pregnancy.

    Not so with ending a pregnancy and the new life being nurtured in that pregnancy. Indeed. it is the lethal act of abortion perpetrated by the abortionist against her unborn child that introduces a very real and substantial ‘force’ to bring a most violent, most unnatural end to her child’s life in utero.

    Now let’s examine the claim that “forcing her to continue an unwanted pregnancy is akin to rape itself as it forces her to submit her body to an unwanted physical situation”.

    In the interests of clarification, it must be asked just who is applying the “force” here? Certainly not her child. That utterly vulnerable little child is exercising no sinister “force” against her mother. She is has committed no aggression, no crime, and is not deserving of a violent termination of her existence.

    Positing the forcing of a violent end onto her innocent unborn child has to be weighed up against the natural (unforced) non-violent continuation of her pregnancy.

    Finally, if rape were to be redefined as suggested, it could be said to apply to the withholding of other interventions which arbitrarily and intentionally halt a natural process.

    Regarding, for example, the natural process of breathing, then a doctor’s refusal to provide a lethal treatment for a suicidal woman in order to stop the natural process of breathing could also be condemned as ‘rape’. Is it really “akin to rape” to withhold a lethal treatment, the denial of which “forces her to submit her body to an unwanted physical situation”? Is it really true to say that she is being ‘forced’ to continue breathing?

    We should not toy lightly with the concept of ‘rape’. The act of rape must remain a serious crime involving as it does an indefensibly horrific use of physical force against a vulnerable human being. Nor should we encourage acts of abortion for these acts too involve an indefensibly horrific use of physical force against a vulnerable human being.

  • Lisa says:

    Rita- Your use of language to “simplify the text” does more than that. Your choice of “daughter”, “tiny girl-child”, “vulnerable human being” and “innocent”, is similar to language used by others to elicit an emotional, not necessary rational, response to the zygote. (What feeling person wouldn’t want to protect a tiny helpless baby girl?)But I feel it is disingenuous in this discussion. You are working on society’s and a woman’s emotions, trying to make the choice a more guilty one than a pragmatic medical one. Abortion carried out before a fetus is viable outside the womb terminates a process. No matter what the potential is, that is not yet a person. No matter what genetic material it contains, it is not an independent life-form. Conveying rights on a fertilized egg above the right of a woman to decide when and how and with whom she reproduces is an emotional and perhaps religiously guided ideal, but not something the government should enforce or legislate. You are not punishing or executing a baby- you are allowing a legal, safe medical procedure to halt un unwanted pregnancy (or perhaps a wanted pregnancy that has gone terribly awry.) You wrote earlier of the concept of maternal reprieve being an historic concept. Abortion is an historic concept as well, using herbs and other natural abortificants. It has always been so.

    As for my comparison of forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy being akin to rape, it is the government that is forcing her, not the fetus. Your repeated use of the term violent as it pertains to the procedure is also an emotional and non-rational argument. Any medical extraction could be characterized as violent in that case. You seem to want people to envision a cuddly full-term baby girl dressed in a pink frock being ripped from the welcoming arms of a desperate woman. Allowing an early, safe, medical procedure to end a unwanted pregnancy is nothing akin to that. Outlawing it, making it shameful or difficult will lead to later term abortions, true violence against women who will have to resort to the draconian measures of the pre-Roe v. Wade days. And now, as it was then, the wealthy and privileged will always find a way to work around the law while the less fortunate in society will be the ones to bear the brunt of this double standard once again.

    Let me know who will be caring for the meth and crack babies. Let me know who will pay to support a woman who is having a complicated pregnancy and can’t work or care for her other children. Let me know who will provide a quality standard of life for the millions and millions of babies who will be born if their parents (because I’m sure a lot of fathers are helping make the decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy) are prevented from their choice should you make your sense of moral indignation the law of the land. Let me know who will pay for the therapy for the woman carrying a pregnancy to term while hating the fetus because of how it was conceived. Pragmatically, legal abortion is a much easier choice.

    • David Effler says:

      Very good points, Lisa. As a school psychologist, I worked for 32 years with clients including those who were unwanted, abused, and affected by their parents drug and alcohol intake. Some of these parents should have never had children. I have seen inner city grandmothers desperately trying to raise the grandchildren their daughters (and sometimes sons) continue to produce, and many of these kids will grow up to exhibit the same habits. Personally, I would have no problem with men or women who continue to produce children with no intention of taking care of them getting neutered. For now, I can show any person who is totally against abortion where they can easily foster or adopt some of these unwanted children. This should affirm their commitment to a prolife position.

  • Rita Joseph says:

    Lisa, we need to answer a simple scientific question here – are unborn children human beings?

    If they are not, they will have the DNA of another species. If they are part of the mother, their DNA will be identical to the mother’s.

    But if they are each a genetically unique human being (and I know of no reputable scientist who would deny this), then we must deal honestly with the ethical question of when it is right to take another human being’s life.

    You seem to be suggesting, Lisa, that we make “independent life-form” the absolute pre-requiusite condition for being protected as a human being. But this would also require the removal of human rights protection from many disabled human beings who are unable to sustain a life-form that is independent.

    In general, total dependency of one human being on another (and there are hundreds of millions of heroic cases where sole carers love, cherish and totally support a family member for many decades, not just for a short nine months) does not authorise the carer to exercise totalitarian power to have the life of her dependant surgically terminated.

    Nor can the introduction of replacement terms “the zygote and “the foetus” for the unborn child be allowed to remove a right to legal protection against arbitrary deprivation of the life of the unborn child.

    Right from the first drafting of the international human rights instruments, the legal language of human rights included repeatedly and consistently the terms ‘unborn children’ and ‘the child before as well as after birth’.

    It is not valid to replace these international human rights legal terms with ‘the zygote’ and ‘the fetus’ and then claim that the child has no right to legal protection.

    Dehumanizing language cannot legitimize human rights violations. Giving the human child at the early stages of development medical nomenclature does not alter the child’s human nature or the child’s entitlement ‘by nature’ to the ‘inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’.

    You seem, Lisa, to take exception to the term ‘innocent’ being applied to the unborn child, but the child is not to be treated as an offender—the child is not deserving of capital punishment—the child has committed no crime and there can be no lawful authorization for the intentional deprivation of the child’s life.

    The modern history of the legal application of the term ‘innocent’ to the unborn child is revealing. In the drafting of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as the foundation instrument for modern international human rights law, one of the first principles agreed in the negotiations by the drafting committee was that the “innocent unborn child” was to be legally protected.
    The drafters of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reaffirmed this. While drafting the ‘right to life’ Article 6 of the Covenant, the only recorded attempt to introduce abortion as an exception to the right to life occurred in the Working Group’s 2nd Session (1947). It was put to a vote in the Commission on Human Rights and was resoundingly defeated. A principle was adopted in which the only exception to the unlawfulness of deprivation of a life was to be in the execution of the sentence of a court following on conviction of a crime for which the penalty is provided by law.

    The ICCPR drafting history records repeatedly and irrevocably that “unborn children are entitled to legal protection”.
    For all practical legal purposes, they recognized that the life of a new human being has begun when a woman is confirmed to be pregnant. It was agreed that from the State’s first knowledge of the pregnancy, there is a State responsibility to protect the innocent unborn child from harm, even in circumstances where the mother’s right to life had been forfeited for having committed a crime punishable by death.

    The drafting records attest that “the principal reason” for providing that the death sentence should not be carried out on pregnant women was “to save the life of an innocent unborn child; that protection should be extended to all unborn children.”

    Finally, Lisa, with regard to the unborn child’s right to legal protection under international human rights law, your ‘not yet a person’ claim has no validity. The Inter-American Convention on Human Rights established the consensus definition that “‘person’ means every human being”.

    From bitter experience, the drafters understood that human rights belong to every human being because they are human. They understood that it is not in the gift of governments to confer human rights on some human beings and withdraw them from others. The State has no authority to divide the human race into ‘persons’ and ‘non-persons’, while deeming the privileged group only to be ‘persons’ worthy of human rights protection.

    Human rights belong to “all members of the human family”. Human beings even in the earliest stages of life, and irrespective of social origin, age or size or disabilities, must not be subjected to discriminatory, arbitrarily defined, logically inconsistent and vexatious tests of ‘personhood’.

    Theirs are human rights not ‘person rights’.

  • David Effler says:

    Esteemed colleagues, I sitll think the ultimate test of commitment to a belief is to put your time/effort/money where your words are. There are countless children born to people every year who should never have been parents, and many of these innocent kids are waiting for foster homes or adoptive parents. If you are categoricaly pro-life, you should have little difficulty fostering or adopting one or more of these children. Unfortunately, it is immeasurably more difficult to raise than to conceive a child and many parents are NOT UP TO THE TASK. I would as soon provide these prolific people with free birth control or a free “neutering” procedure, and let them copulate to their heart’s content.

    The Chinese have a very practical definition of who has the status of a living human being…any infant who has made it out of the womb is a “citizen” and has all the rights therein guaranteed. If the birth is “illegal” (more than the number the family is allowed to have), and the mother manages to carry the pregnancy to term (attempting an “illegal” birth), the infant will be injected with a lethal toxin as soon as the head crowns. I can’t say I feel comfortable with this, but noone doubts when life legally begins in their country.

    If an unborn fetus has rights as a citizen, I think the least we could do is to start work on developing consequences for those who habitually conceive irresponsibily (women AND men). If you bring a child into the world and turn them over for someone else to raise, (at some point) I think the consequence should be to take away their ability to conceive. I know this sound pretty Orwellian, but there should be consequences for being this irresponsible, not to mention the right of children not to be born to incompetent, uncaring parents. This is just my view of a possible brave new world that would seriously address this problem, but I think our hands will be eventually foreced as it has happened in China.

    I appreciate the civility of all who are opining on this blog. Some very important points have been expressed.

  • David Effler says:

    I should have apologized in my last post for not addressing the original issue – rape. However, I think the questions of when life begins and what to do when unwanted children are born are are points foundational to this topic.

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