Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin has been all over the news for saying this in response to a question about abortion in the case of rape:
People always try to make that one of those things, ‘Oh, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. It seems to me, first of all, what I understand from doctors is that’s really where, if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
He then goes on to say that he opposes abortion in cases of rape. (Before I go on to address the big issue here – the use of the word “legitimate” – I want to note how surprising it is that this position isn’t more widespread in the anti-abortion camp. If the life of a child is what matters, then why is it important how that child was conceived? If a life is a life, then a life is a life. The argument that ‘every life matters’ doesn’t cease to be the right-wing’s cornerstone because of external reasons that do not reflect upon the innocence of the life itself.)
Anyway. The major issue at hand here is that Akin, apparently, distinguished between legitimate and, presumably, illegitimate rape. I think it is important, at this point, to listen to the actual clip from the interview:
I think this makes his words much more ambiguous. Let’s start with the first part of what he says. When quoted in writing, it sounds like he’s being dismissive and condescending to people who ‘always try to make that one of those tough ethical questions’. That is, if I had only read what he said, I would have placed his words in a context where he was practically saying that the issue is nothing more than a “gotcha question”. Listening to the video, it’s clear he’s just summarizing the nature of the argument. I think it’s clear he does think the question is a tough one. His inflection indicates that. But I never would have gotten that from just reading his quote.
Now let’s look at his use of the word “legitimate”. I think what he was trying to emphasize was a difference between consensual sex and rape. That is, he was trying to say the female body has a way of distinguishing between two types of sex acts (consensual and non-consensual). Of course, there is no way the female body does that, and I suspect he was merely repeating the all too common anti-abortion propaganda out there that has no regard for science.
To be sure, Akin used a stupid word. And to be extra sure, I think his position on abortion is just as stupid. However, I do not think that he meant to say that women who claim to be raped yet still get pregnant are lying, that their rapes were not legitimate. I think he believed, erroneously, that there is some physiological mechanism in place that prevents pregnancy in the case of rape, but he also believed that it was not 100% effective. (Again, his belief was wrong through and through, but I think that’s the position he held.)
I don’t want to defend Akin. And, frankly, part of me is glad that this has not only impacted his chance of election, but that it has placed a negative light on the Republican party all together. However, just as President Obama’s use of the word “that” did not mean he believed business owners did not build their own businesses, I do not think Akin’s use of the word “legitimate” means he thinks pregnant rape victims are liars. For me, this issue goes beyond the social concerns and the ethical issues. I very much see it as an issue of language. I’m not willing to grill someone over what I think was a slip of the tongue. Until I see evidence that Akin might actually believe that rape victims are liars – a certainly shitty position – I’m not jumping on the bandwagon.
Finally, let’s go back to what I said right before the video: “I think it is important, at this point, to listen to the actual clip from the interview.” I intentionally used the word “actual”; most people who read it likely assumed I was distinguishing between the video clip and the written quote. And I was. However, it would not be difficult to falsely interpret my sentence to mean that I think there is a real clip and a fake clip. Or, alternatively, it could be interpreted to mean that I think the written quote is somehow fabricated or quote-mined. None of that would be true, of course. All I was saying was that there is a difference between reading a quote and hearing a quote. The nature of language allows for broad interpretations, though – especially when there is an agenda-driven narrative already in place.