First, you get an outlier to express the idea in particularly outrageous and, to use the word of the week, “inelegant” form. Then you get the opposition to draw attention to the outlier’s outrages. Finally, there is the “well, you know” moment, in which people who hold the outlier’s position distance themselves from the style while clinging to the substance of an idea once considered beyond the pale.
Last month the Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin, said the following in response to a question about abortion in the case of a pregnancy caused by rape: “People always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question? First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s 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 on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
That whole thing? One of those things? Akin was just begging to be thrown under the bus.
Appalled that anyone in the 21st century could suggest that a woman’s reproductive system was capable of repelling the sperm of rapists, Republicans from Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle to Mitt Romney were quick to criticize the Missouri senatorial candidate for his indelicate choice of words. Buerkle called the Akin comments “reprehensible” and “indefensible.” Romney called upon Akin to withdraw from the Senate race.
And then it happened. While Buerkle, a former nurse, demonstrated a greater understanding of the more intimate aspects of female physiology than her colleague from the Show Me State, she followed up her denunciation of Akin by reiterating her support for his position on abortion rights. Gov. Romney, for his part, stands for president on a platform with a plank identical to Rep. Akin’s position. The party that claims (its deficit record notwithstanding) that it wants to reduce the role of government proudly asserts that the government, not the woman, should determine whether a rape survivor carries a pregnancy full term.
You see how Akin becomes a useful prop in the discussion? By distancing herself from the looniest aspect of his position—that the body somehow “shuts that whole thing down” in cases of “legitimate rape”—Buerkle gets to play the role of moderate while holding a position that Ronald Reagan would have found extreme. It remains a mystery how this position is consistent with a desire to get government out of our lives.
The party of Lincoln and Reagan would like us to forget that the latter’s so-called “Mexico City Policy,” begun in 1984, prohibited U.S. foreign aid from being used to promote or provide abortions, but made exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother. That was the consensus view just a generation ago, among many who opposed abortion rights in principle.
Buerkle has always been a consistent abortion opponent. She believes that a woman who has been raped and finds herself pregnant should be forced by law to carry that child to term. In the Buerkle-Akin world, to terminate a pregnancy created by an assault would make the woman a criminal. Since criminal offenses carry criminal penalties, I asked Rep. Buerkle what the penalty should be for the crime of aborting a child conceived as the result of a sexual assault. She replied that the question itself was “preposterous.”
Rep. Buerkle says that her views on this topic were formed years ago when she was giving a presentation as part of her work as an anti-abortion activist. According to Buerkle, a woman stood up in the audience and, announcing that she had adopted a child born of rape, asked the audience, “Are you saying that my child’s life is not worthwhile?” That is a dramatic and moving story. It is also a story of two women who made a choice.
One last thought on this topic: Social conservatives who base their
opposition to gay marriage and to reproductive freedom often make
reference to a natural order. Akin seems to indicate that he believes
part of that “natural order” is being worked out by a woman’s body
“shutting down” a conception brought on by violence. In this respect
even he seems to realize that there is something very wrong with forcing
motherhood upon a woman through rape. Then why does he insist that he
has the right to do exactly that? And why do Rep. Buerkle, and Gov.
Romney continue to dance to his sorry tune?
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at email@example.com.