If there is something everyone can agree on, it would seem that the idea that rape can result in unwanted pregnancy would be right up there at the top of the list.
Not so in Missouri, where the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate on Sunday advanced the theory that the female reproductive system shuts down when a woman is being raped, thus preventing conception.
Rep. Todd Akin, a tea party candidate who is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in the closely watched race, was asked in a local television interview about whether he supports access to abortion in the case of rape.
"If abortion could be considered in case of, say, a tubal pregnancy [which threatens the mother’s life], what about in the case of rape?" asked KTVI host Charles Jaco, in a clip that was disseminated by Talking Points Memo. "Should it be legal or not?"
"It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare,” Akin said, referring to conception following a rape. "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."
According to a 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. The journal put the national rape-related pregnancy rate at 5% among victims age 12 to 45.
The answer by Akin -- who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology -- led to instant condemnation from his opponent and women's advocates.
McCaskill tweeted, "As a woman & former prosecutor who handled 100s of rape cases, I'm stunned by Rep Akin's comments about victims this AM."
Later, in an emailed statement, she said, "It is beyond comprehension that someone can be so ignorant about the emotional and physical trauma brought on by rape. The ideas that Todd Akin has expressed about the serious crime of rape and the impact on its victims are offensive."
A short time later, McCaskill's campaign manager, Adrianne Marsh, emailed a fundraising appeal to supporters with the subject line: “Legitimate rape?”
Women's rights advocates said they were infuriated, both by the wrongheaded biology lesson and the implication that some rapes are not "legitimate."
"Obviously, women have become pregnant from rape," said Gloria Allred, the veteran women’s rights attorney. "Sometimes it’s child rape, sometimes it's stranger rape, sometimes it's acquaintance rape, but whatever you call it, it is rape. For him to put misconceptions into the marketplace of ideas, this is dangerous."
Allred spoke from experience. When she was in her early 20s, she has often said, she was raped at gunpoint in Mexico and became pregnant. "I had to have an abortion that was illegal for the doctor to give, but not illegal for me to receive," she said Sunday afternoon.
"What [Akin is] saying is dangerous and needs a clear response. We shouldn't discount it and just say he's trying to appeal to a political base. There is a strong constituency in Missouri and elsewhere which wants to chip away at a woman's right to choose abortion. This is the extreme of the extreme."
In a reverse-psychology move to influence the outcome of the three-way Republican primary so that she would face the candidate she perceived as the weakest possible opponent, McCaskill's campaign spent about $2 million on ads that described Akin "too conservative."
Whether that strategy has worked is unclear, as Akin leads McCaskill by several points in recent polls.
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