I’ll now vet the merits of the Todd Akin kerfuffle. The Akin affair is a prime example of our debased public discourse, or of what Susan Jacoby called the current “age of American unreason.” Within seconds of Akin’s comments, mouths frothed and nostrils flared. There was no time to think and respond rationally. Jacoby says that more and more we’re seeing “a new species of anti-rationalism . . . that leaves no room for contemplation or logic” (Jacoby, American Age of Unreason, p. 283 and xi-xii). The responses to the Akin “gaffe,” by both sides of the political aisle, have been more emotional than thoughtful. This is in line with what Ronald Dworkin said when he lamented “the lack of any decent argument in American political life.” This is right. There’s no real argument, there’s simply teeth gnashing and agitating. Because, as Dworkins notes, “most people have no interest in discussion or debate with those they regard as belonging to an entirely alien religious or political culture” (Dworkin, Is Democracy Possible, 22). Some involved in the “discussion” will no doubt reply incredulously: “Look around you, there are hundreds of people arguing vehemently!” That is to equivocate on what I mean by ‘argue.’ Sure, there’s noisy assertion-cymbals clanging with contentious sound and fury signifying non-argument. There’s squabbling. There’s disputing. There’s yelling of conclusions. But there is not genuine debate. There’s no argument in the sense of giving reasons for a conclusion that instance valid structures of arguments. And while I disagree with Jacoby and Dworkin on many issues in the above cited works, they’re certainly right to lament our public discourse. In what follows I’ll do the unpopular and offer a defense of Akin, even if disagreeing with certain infelicities of language as well as aspects of his follow-up “clarification,” and focus on the heart of the issue—where the real argument should take place.
The context is this: Akin was asked in an interview about his position on abortion. Akin said he doesn’t agree with it but said it could be considered in a case of tubal pregnancy. But if it could be considered in the aforementioned case, then:
Interviewer: What about in the case of rape? Should it be legal or not?
Rep. Todd Akin: Well you know, people always want to try and make it as one of those things, how do you– how do you slice this particularly tough ethical question.
It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, uhh, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment, but I think the punishment ought to be of the rapist and not attacking the child.
The main issue seems to concern his use of the term “legitimate rape.” The lesser issue seems to concern the putative medical claim about what abilities the female body has while being raped. So that’s the context out of which the brouhaha developed.
The reactions fall into two categories, viz., Akins’s comments were (1) inflammatory and (2) misinformed. President Barack Obama’s comments are representative of (1). In a press conference he said, “Rape is rape. The idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me.” In response to (2), the basic response is to cite medical doctors who ostensibly disagree with Akin’s medical claim. The more “rigorous” [sic] of these responses attempt to straight-up debunk his claim, and all of these responses have made recourse to this study by the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which claims that, at least sixteen years ago, “The national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45); among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year.” These responses have crassly and succinctly been summed up by The Onion,
“(1) [Akin is] a big fucking idiot,
(2) [Akin is] a nauseating slug of a human being who doesn’t deserve to live, and
(3) [Akin is] essentially everything that’s wrong with this country and with humanity in general.”
Onion is saying here what the media want to say when they state their feelings about Akin, but I’ll show this confidence is misplaced.
Ad (1): So the phrase “legitimate rape” is unconscionable, and worthy of scorn and ridicule. Why is that? Well, Obama’s position is to assert an uninteresting tautology (i.e., “rape is rape”) and bemoan “The idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about.” First, let’s get the rhetorical-but-funny response out-of-the-way: “Akin didn’t say that, someone else made that happen.” Sure, it came out of his mouth, but he had to use roads and bridges to get to the news station. Moreover, he needed teachers, either to educate him in his alleged ignorance, or to fail at their duty and not teach him the proper way to think. If Obama says we should share the praise for our actions, then we should also share the blame.
But enough if this, on to the more serious reply. Obama appears at loggerheads with his own Machine, including himself. For example, just recently the White House, under the leadership of Joe Biden, launched the 1 is 2 Many campaign where they specifically say that “Young women still face the highest rates of dating violence and sexual assault,” and if you watch the short PSA, Obama himself refers to dating violence. I assume ‘date rape’ is included in the set of ‘dating violence,’ and so Obama is “qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about.” Whitehouse.gov also includes papers, reports, and comments on things like “prison rape” and “statutory rape,” and the DOJ even uses Akin’s terminology when it referred to “forcible” rape. Does Obama know what’s going on under his own roof, and why isn’t he coming down on himself and the White House? But even if he weasels out and says he didn’t mean “rape” to be included in “dating violence,” the problem he raised remains: Isn’t “violence, violence?” Why should we “qualify and slice” what types of violence we’re talking about? Indeed, isn’t the liberal machine all about qualifying and slicing things into types and group-identities? Instead of “murder is murder,” we have “hate crime,” or we qualify types of harassment against women, viz., “sexual harassment.” So Obama is just demagoguing.
More to the point: what is wrong with the phrase “legitimate rape?” Suppose I say, “If F is a legitimate G.” Seems to me that shouldn’t strike one as problematic from the get go. Seems to me normal people would think I’m simply saying, “If F is a real G,” or “If F is an authentic G,” or “If F is an actual G.” (As an aside, it does not appear to me that for F to be a legitimate G there has to exist “illegitimate Gs.” So, logically, stating something of the form “F is a G,” does not commit me to the existence of illegitimate Gs.) Now, let’s plug-in some values for ‘F’ and ‘G.’ Suppose I say, “Only if that bill is a legitimate dollar, can you (legally) buy a soda with it.” What my statement conversationally implies, and ordinary folk would concur, is this: “If that bill is a fake or a counterfeit, you can’t (legally) buy a soda with it.” Stated this way, it seems that in many cases, “If F is a legitimate G” simply means, “If F is a real instance of G,” or, “Are we dealing with a real G or a fake G?” On this view, there could and does exist illegitimate “rapes,” (see also here and here, and it could be that a lot of “illegitimate rapes” have been included in the data of ostensibly “legitimate rapes,” which would skew the data)
Another analysis arises when we look into say, “statutory rape” or “rape of a child.” Now, I might want to distinguish between legitimate rape of a child (for which I personally think the punishment should be death) and illegitimate ones. Before you start hyperventilating, take a second, breath, and think through this with me. Suppose some group includes in the set of X some subset of X called Y. Now, suppose there is real and legitimate debate about whether all the members of Y legitimately belong to Y, and thus legitimately belong to X. That is indeed the case in “rape of a child” or “statutory rape” cases. In some cases, a kid who just turned eighteen can be charged with “rape of a child” for having sex with his 16-year-old teenage girlfriend. But this category is dubious, and some might want to exclude these cases from what they mean by “rape,” thus labeling some ostensible cases of ‘rape’ as illegitimate for the purposes of the claim they want to make about legitimate, paradigm cases of rape. So there’s nothing wrong with the phrase “legitimate rape,” per se.
But Akin didn’t take my above approach. Instead, he said that he simply did not mean “legitimate” but meant “forcible.” If this is true, then the desire to politically lynch someone over using the wrong word is a bit harsh—especially in these alleged postmodern, relativistic times. And moreover, note that even Akin’s public mea culpa and subsequent clarification would draw the Obama ire for making a distinction—a distinction his own FBI makes, however. Furthermore, in full disarray, the Obama Machine is at odds with itself (again), for Akin’s clarification is viewed “by many as just as offensive because it diminishes date rape, which is extremely prevalent.” So Obama crucified Akin for qualifying and the “many” cited by Huff-Po criticize Akin for not qualifying! Apparently, Akin can’t win for losing! But there’s nothing offensive about using the term “forceable rape” (and the distinction matters, for if date rape is not classified as “forceable” rape (and it is not, according to neutral law enforcement agencies and apparently even Huff-Po) then citing pregnancy by date rape would not be a counterexample that could be used to show that Akin’s claims were “obviously and blatantly false”).
Ad (2): I am not a medical doctor or the son of one, so I am not qualified to speak to the medical claims made. But having dispensed with the above “reason” for calling for Akin’s head, I’ll now turn to the claim that he made a false medical claim. One wants to dismiss this with a “So what?” I mean, big deal, the guy thought medical science said one thing when it said another. Or, he is simply ignorant of what the data apparently shows. Put me in a room with any layman or politician for an hour, record it, and I’ll come out with clips of them saying something stupid or acting like they know more than they know. People, especially ordinary folk, make claims all the time about what “science” has shown, and they’re almost always B.S.-ing. But let’s look at this further.
Now, I’m not making any claim either way vis-a-vis the validity of this claim, but there are some certified medical doctors who have made the very claim Akin made. How many people hear their doctor make some medical claim and then repeat it? Empathy dictates that the verbal shooters should now turn their guns on themselves. Thus, it’s not as if Akin was intentionally lying or simply making claims without any backing whatsoever. But let’s examine his claim, he said: “It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that [getting pregnant from a rape is] really rare.” Moreover, this rape is “legitimate,” by which Akin claims he meant “forcible.” So, putting this together, Akin’s claim is this: “It is really rare to get pregnant by a rape of kind X.” Now, let’s inspect some responses:
Here’s an article by a medical doctor CNN posted. Essentially, the counter-argument from this doctor is that, “women do get pregnant from rapes.” Logically, this is completely compatible with Akin’s claim that “it is rare” to get pregnant from a rape. Next, the doctor does not bother to define ”rape” and he does not in any sense give any data regarding the kind of rape Akin said he was talking about, viz., “forcible.” Rather, he plays the sophist and refuses to use the term “forcible” but uses the vague term “legitimate” instead, which allows him to make the claim that, “The body doesn’t differentiate between ‘legitimate’ rape and ‘illegitimate’ rape—whatever that is.” But that claim is worthless if we don’t define “rape.” For example, let’s define “legitimate rape” as forceable sexual assault and “illegitimate rape” what (18-year-old) Romeo did to (17-year-old) Juliette. If a woman is being forcibly raped, I would suspect her body could tell a difference between that kind of rape and, say, a Romeo and Juliette case of “statutory rape.” So there’s nothing in this article that destroys Akin’s claim, which is not to say his claim is true. I don’t know.
Here’s another article by another doctor. This doctor responds to the above linked to medical doctor’s (Dr. Wilke) claim that, “Assault rape pregnancies are extremely rare.” The comeback is to link to this study, and then act as if Dr. Wilke has been refuted. But—and recall I am not defending the empirical veracity of Akin or Dr. Wilke’s claim—the study does not refute either Akin or Wilke. Here’s the report of the study:
“The national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45); among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. Among 34 cases of rape-related pregnancy, the majority occurred among adolescents and resulted from assault by a known, often related perpetrator. Only 11.7% of these victims received immediate medical attention after the assault, and 47.1% received no medical attention related to the rape. A total 32.4% of these victims did not discover they were pregnant until they had already entered the second trimester; 32.2% opted to keep the infant whereas 50% underwent abortion and 5.9% placed the infant for adoption; an additional 11.8% had spontaneous abortion.”
The first problem is that “rape-related pregnancy” is a broader category than Akin’s “forcible rape” and Wilke’s “assault rape.” So our good doctor is simply playing fast and loose with the categories. I sure hope he did not conduct research this way throughout medical school. The second problem is that both Akin and Wilke claim that pregnancies resulting from type-X rapes are “rare.” Has our good doctor shown, by linking to the above study, that such rapes are not rare? No, he has not. Indeed, even granting his all-inclusive definition of “rape,” he has not shown they are not rare. 5.0% out of 100% is rare. But our good doctor instead says, “If 32,000 pregnancies per year is a ‘rare event, then some people are living in a very strange, disconnected world.” Notice he focuses on a number that sounds large and then concludes it can’t be rare (like claiming 616,000 people die from heart attacks in the U.S. each year, and screaming that we have a huge epidemic). But we must ask, 32,000 out of how many (like with the heart attacks, that’s out of 300 million, so, it’s rare)? According to this, there’s almost 700,000 forcible rapes per year, which means roughly 4.6% percent of rapes result in pregnancies. But notice, 4.6% is based only off forcible rapes, yet the 32,000 was not, thus the percept would be much smaller. However, 4.6% is still rare. So our good doctor—an apparent innumerate—simply tried to obfuscate the issue and make things look more common than it really is. Lastly, the same group the good doctor cites elaborates on definitions of rape, which shows they had the very broad definition in mind and not just “forcible rape,” a category they admit exists and is distinct from other kinds of rape (apologies to Obama).
Thus, there does not appear to be any refutation of either Akin’s or Wilke’s claim. Without that, the angry, unthoughtful, apparently ignorant, and merely political outrage directed at Akin is rationally unfounded.
The Real Issue:
To be sure, there this is the empirical issue of whether a woman’s body “shuts down” (whatever that means) during (has anyone tested a women during an “assault rape” to verify this either way?) a forcible rape. As President Obama said of the abortion question, “That’s above my pay grade.” I don’t know enough to say either way. Let’s assume Akin was wrong about that empirical fact. So what? The main planks of his claim have not been refuted (see above). But what’s the real issue here? The question that started the outlandish outcry was this: “Is abortion acceptable in cases of rape.” That question was not answered and is not being debated. The approach Akin took, if I can speculate, was to point out that those cases are outlier to the total number of abortions that happen in the world and thus detract from the debate. President Obama took the issue as a chance to demagogue and stated that Akin’s answers show why “Men are not qualified to make woman’s health decisions.” But not only did I debunk Obama’s “response” to Akin and show it to be ill-informed of what is going on under his own roof, and even contrary to his own ways of speaking, his answer shows a general ignorance of the pro-life argument. Here’s the pro-life claim: The fetus (or conceptus) is a human being. If this claim is true, then no one is trying to make health decisions for the woman. That kind of response blatantly begs the question against the pro-life claim. If anything, it’s making a health decision for the unborn child (on pro-life premises) who can’t make one for himself. Thus in an ironic turn of events, it is the Obama Machine that looks ignorant, not so much Akin. They simply butcher their interlocutor’s argument and ignore its central claim.
So, is abortion permissible in cases of rape? Well, that depends, doesn’t it, on the prior question of whether the pro-life claim is true—the one we should be debating. If that premise is true, what is Obama’s argument that shows this situation is acceptable: Person X rapes person Y which results in creating a new person, Z, and so Y can kill person Z. How does the deontic logic of that argument go, Barack? For it seems to have relevant parity to this case: Imagine that Sam slams his car into Mary’s car’s rear bumper. Is Mary at all justified in taking a bat to poor Eunice’s car? She had nothing to do with the accident. Indeed, Eunice might be in front of Mary. Sam slams into Mary cause Mary to slam into Eunice. Eunice didn’t ask to be slammed into, but on top of that, Eunice now has to have her car smashed with a bat. Is that right? Just? Fair? Or whatever alleged liberal desideratum is said to have all-controlling consideration?
But the real issue won’t be debated. For answers to those questions aren’t allowed in “public discourse.” No one wants to have a real debate, a real . . . argument; rather, people want to nakedly-assert, skew numbers, ignore distinctions, demagogue, grandstand, demonize, name call, anything but engage in rational debate. I get it, politics is a blood sport. But let’s do away with the notion that the liberals are the rational ones, the intelligent ones, the scientifically and philosophically sophisticated ones. Akin will probably be crucified over this. But if you’re on the side of reason and good thinking, this should offend you. Not only because the reaction is overboard, but more importantly, because the negative responses to him are backed by poor argument, obfuscation, and a certain obtuseness capable only by politicians and some university professors. I do understand that the above was an epistemic defense of Akin and that there may be non-epistemic, pragmatic reasons for him to step down. I wasn’t commenting on those. I do want to register, however, that those calling for him to step down shouldn’t pretend they have epistemic reasons for their claims, and that is in fact what they are pretending to have. Oh, one last thing, shame on those republicans calling on Akin to step down and bowing to the idol of political correctness. The conservative thing to do is take your time and think, not rashly progress ahead along with the angry mob.
Here’s some links to the thoughts of an conservative atheist (not that such labels should matter) on the matter: