Republicans And The Semantics Of ‘Legitimate Rape’

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It’s hard to believe there’s anything left to say about Todd Akin’s rapid meltdown, but I think one misunderstanding — or in some cases intentional misreading — still underlies a great deal of what’s already been said. And it cuts right to the questions of what made Akin’s comments so upsetting and so incendiary and why the GOP has tied him to the train tracks.

From Nancy Pelosi’s statement: “It is almost impossible to believe that any political leader would suggest that any case of rape is ‘legitimate.'”

From Akin himself, in one of his mea culpas, “Rape is never legitimate. I used the wrong words.”

From a Politico reporter Sunday night, “Perhaps we should take @ToddAkin exactly at his word. And those who do believe he thinks there are some rapes that are ‘legitimate.'”

Three’s a trend, so I think it’s safe to say that a plenty of people believe the main problem with what Akin said is that, under one interpretation of the word “legitimate,” he was suggesting that some rapes are justified, or even rightful.

Of course there are a lot of people in America who believe that some rapes ought to be cast as less severe sex crimes, or, worse, as the sad but inevitable consequences of lifestyles they consider immoral. Not rape that’s justified exactly, but rape that doesn’t deserve the same moral reprobation, the same outrage, or even the same legal protections as what they call “forcible rape”. Akin appears to be right at home with with this set — it’s a clear implication of his comments.

But the “legitimate rape” fracas is so troubling in part because it’s not a straightforwardly noxious case of a man offering his blessing to certain rapes. That would require assuming Todd Akin is some sort of rare, inhuman monster, rather than a deeply anti-abortion member of the House of Representatives, at home in the modern GOP.

Take what Akin said to its obvious conclusion. He contended that some rapes don’t really count as rape — that rapes aren’t “legitimate” or “authentic” or “genuine” unless they meet the religious right’s definition of “forcible.” Add in the junk science element, and you reach the conclusion — not unusual among abortion opponents — that a pregnancy is prima facie evidence that the fetus wasn’t conceived during a rape, and thus that rape exceptions to abortion restrictions are superfluous.

That’s what Akin was getting at — a policy issue as much as a moral and personal one. It’s why his words are a danger to the entire Republican Party, and not just to Akin himself.

And thus I think a lot of Republicans are resting their calls for Akin to step aside either on his fatuous biological claim, that rape victims can’t get pregnant, or on an ambiguity — pretending Akin’s an outlying derelict who supports sex crimes, and thus distancing themselves from him without drawing ire from abortion foes in their base who share his actual views.

For instance, Mitt Romney told WMUR, “[Akin] should understand that his words with regards to rape are words that I can’t defend, that we can’t defend, and we can’t defend him.”

He told National Review Akin’s “comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong. Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive.”

Neither condemnation addresses what Akin actually said. This allows party leaders to pretend Akin might actually believe some rapes are righteous. It allows them to pretend that many, many Republicans — including VP candidate Paul Ryan — don’t share Akin’s view that rape exceptions to abortion laws are wrong. Get rid of Akin without reckoning with his worldview. And it would be instructive if Romney and Ryan had to explain exactly what part of the “legitimate rape” flap they found objectionable.

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