So there I was, putting together a long post on the fabric of the Universe, when Todd Akin came along and seemed to demand at least some brief commentary. A few remarks on that, and I’ll get back to the rest of the Universe in a day or two:
1) The exact quote, in response to a question about pregnancies resulting from rape, is: ““It seems to me, 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 of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”
2) It seems to me, from what I understand from news sources, that the female body does not in fact have ways of recognizing rape and preventing conception. I have absolutely no expertise in this matter; therefore my understanding might be wrong. Nevertheless, I’m happy to pass that understanding along.
3) It also seems to me that the phrase “from what I understand from doctors” says, in effect, “I am not an expert, so this might be wrong, but here’s what I’ve heard”. It is not unreasonable for people to make statements like this. In fact, I did it myself, just one paragraph back.
4) A great many of the commentators who jumped to assure you that Akin was wrong about the science did so with no more justification than Akin himself — they, like I, were merely repeating what they’d heard from others. Unlike Akin, most of them made no effort to include that qualification. That gives him, I think, the higher ground on this issue.
5) The question arises: Was Akin in fact repeating something he’d misunderstood, or was he perhaps just making this up? The former assumption is the charitable one, and I think we should go with the charitable assumption as long as it’s reasonable. In this case it’s reasonable. For one thing, there does seem to be evidence (of ambiguous strength) that pregancies resulting from one-time sex are more likely to miscarry than pregnancies resulting from ongoing relationships (it is thought that a man’s semen might have protective value for his own offspring but not for others’ offspring). Insofar as rapes are statistically more likely to be one-time events, this suggests that pregnancies resulting from rape are more likely to miscarry. This isn’t the same thing as “the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down”, but it’s close enough, I think, to be the source of a legitimate misunderstanding. (And if it wasn’t the source, I bet there are plenty of other legitimate facts and theories that might have been.)
6) Akin was defending the view that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape. If the “ways to shut that thing down” theory were central to his argument, then he’d have a major obligation to have gotten it right. But he says pretty explicitly that it’s not central to his argument. His argument is that a zygote is a human being and human beings should not be destroyed for the sins of their fathers. That’s an argument worth attacking. It’s also an argument worth defending, and it’s the argument Akin wanted to defend.
7) Therefore I basically parse his statement as follows: “Well, somebody told me — I’m not sure if it’s true — that pregnancy from rape is rare for biological reasons, and of course if that is true it would be relevant. But my argument does not depend on that in any case. My position is that we have a duty to preserve the life of any zygote, regardless of how it was conceived.” I believe that’s the most reasonable guess as to what Akin was trying to say, and I think it’s reasonable for him to have wanted to say it.
8) The legitimacy of the phrase “legitimate rape” is, I think, a sideshow. The guy was speaking off the cuff, and he grabbed the wrong adjective. I do not think he meant to say that some rapes are more legitimate than others. I think he meant to say that if we’re going to look at statistics on miscarriage, we have to distinguish between pregnancies from rape, on the one hand, and pregnancies that were reported to have resulted from-rapes on the other hand. Any social scientist approaching this problem would want to be careful about that distinction.
9) There are less charitable ways to read Akin’s statement, but I find none of those interpretations more plausible than the charitable one.