Talking about rape: What pro-life politicians desperately need to know

Ethel Waters was conceived by rape. Should she have been killed by abortion?
Ethel Waters was conceived by rape. Should she have been killed by abortion? (photo: Register Files)

Recently  a couple of pro-life political candidates have made dramatic, embarrassing statements about rape.

The first was Todd Akin of Missouri (no relation, as far as I know), who referred to the odds that a woman will have a baby if she has been subjected to "legitimate rape."


More recently, Richard Mourdock of Indiana seemed to suggest that sometimes "God intended" rape.


It's clear that some pro-life politicians need to learn better how to talk about this subject. So let's take a look at it and see what lessons there are . . .


"Legitimate Rape"???

First, I know nothing about either Akin or Mourdock except what has been reported about their comments on abortion and rape, so I am not endoring them or their opponents. I am simply trying to look at the lessons that can be learned for the benefit of pro-life politicians--and pro-lifers--in general.

Reportedly, when asked if women who became pregnant as the result of a rape, Todd Akin replied:

Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, 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.

Akin's first problem--or at least the first huge problem--is that he used the phrase "legitimate rape." This appeared to suggest that there is such a thing as legitimate rape, which is morally repugnant.

Of course, a moment's reflection would lead one to realize what he actually meant. By "legitimate rape" he presumably meant actual rape--forcing sex on an unwilling participant.

A contrast to this, presumably, would be cases that are sometimes classified as "statutory rape," in which the statutes of the local criminal code classify an act as rape because one of the parties is not old enough to legally consent to the act. In fact, both of the parties may be willing participants (or one may not be), but in any event one party is deemed unable to legally consent by reason of age.

Akin may also have had in mind situations in which a woman is ambiguous about consent or where she later decides to repudiate her involvement in the act.

All of this leads to Akin's second huge problem: Political opponents and people coming from a pro-abortion perspective will not go through the mental exercise of trying to figure all this out. They will simply attack.

If they do acknowledge that he wasn't actually asserting that some forms of rape are morally legitimate then they will paint him as dismissing what happens to women in other situations (i.e., that statutory rape, ambiguous consent, or repudiated consent "don't matter")--or even just accusing rape victims of lying.

Then there is the matter that Akin was trying to assert, which is that a woman's body has certain in-built defenses such that, if she is forcibly compelled to have sex, make it unlikely she will have a baby.

Although some pro-life leaders have asserted that this is true, others have challenged the claim.

This leads to Akin's third huge problem: By citing a medically disputed claim he gets the issue off the need to protect children conceived of rape and onto the merits of the claim, with other pro-lifers taking a contrary position.

This allows the enemies of life to dismiss pro-lifers (including Akin) as scientific illiterates who are so driven by ideology that they make preposterous claims repudiated by others of their own camp.


"God Intended"???

Reportedly, when asked about his position on abortion during a debate, Richard Mourdock replied in part:

I know there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view, but I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

If you sit back and read his statement carefully, Mourdock is not saying that God intended the rape to happen but that God intended the life to resulted from the rape to happen.

Mourdock's first huge problem is that most people won't sit back and read his claim carefully.

Unless you're a pro-lifer who is taking a careful, cautious, and consciously fair-minded approach to things, you're likely to hear him as saying that God intended the rape.

Mourdock's second huge problem is that, even if you do realize that he's talking about God intending the life rather than the rape, the life would not have happened unless it was for the rape.

It's difficult for a typical voter to see how God could have intended the life without intending the rape that brought it about, so again it looks like he's saying that God intended the rape.

I'm not saying that there aren't nuanced ways of parsing these issues, but the point is this: How God's providence relates to human free will, particularly when humans use their free will to commit evil acts, some of which have good consequences (like new life) is a notoriously thorny issue that has been debated for centuries.

Which leds to Mourdock's third huge problem: The relationship between providence, free will, and evil is unlikely to be sorted out in a modern political debate.

I mean, if you're a politician you're lucky if you get more than a short soundbite through the filter of the Mainstream Media. Don't expect complicated, nuanced theological positions to get through it!


A Common Mistake

Both Akin and Mourdock committed a common mistake in their remarks, which was this: Don't say more than you need to!

Akin did not need to go into the question of whether women who have been forcibly subjected to sexual intercourse are more or less likely to have a baby.

At best, that's a secondary (or tertiary) issue.

Mourdock, if asked about his position on abortion, would not need to go into the case of rape at all.

And, if asked about rape, he would not need to go into the thorny question of how divine providence, free will, and evil relate to each other.

Both of these politicians, thus, opened themselves to massive criticism by committing a common error: Saying more than what they needed to in order to address the question.


What Pro-Life Politicians Need to Say

When called upon to address the subject of abortion and rape (which apparently Mourdock was not), pro-life politicians need to say three things:

  1. "Rape is a horrible crime."
  2. "We should not punish a child for the crime of his or her father."
  3. "And."


These three seem, to me, to constitute the core of what any pro-life politician needs to say about abortion and rape.


"Rape is a horrible crime"

The first of them acknowledges a fact that all moral people recognize regarding rape.

If you don't explicitly acknowledge the objective horror of rape, how can anything else you say on the subject be credible?

This horror is so powerful that if you try to qualify it (e.g., by referring to "legitimate rape") that you kill your credibility and allow yourself to be painted as an insensitive monster.

So don't qualify it.

Tell the truth, and then let the truth stand!


"We should not punish a child for the crime of his or her father"

This is the truth that is a baby should not be killed because his father--or any other of his ancestors, however far back--committed a crime.

So tell this truth, too.

Then let it stand!



How people receive the truths we present depends on how we relate them to each other.

If you say, "X is true, but Y is true" then you put two truths in opposition to each other.

It can even appear that you consider Y to be a more important truth than X--or that X doesn't even matter.

That's why, under the pressures of politics, it's important to acknowledge both the horror of rape and the life of the child.

In dealing with these two truths, it's important to recognize them both, without seeming to dismiss one by using "but" instead of "and."


Anything Else?

It's understandable that, in some situations, politicians would feel called upon to go beyond the three points we have just named.

Sometimes one's interviewers or debate opponents might demand more than this.

What should they do when that happens?

A time-worn answer is to stick to your pre-prepared talking points, anyway, and it's hard to argue with that.

Certainly politicians should not stray very far from the core points of the issue, as the trouble Akin and Mourdock got into illustrates.

In situations where it is absolutely necessary to go further, though, I suggest this: Talking about people who would have been or could have been killed if modern laws regarding abortion and rape were in place.

For example, the American singer Ethel Waters was a child of rape.

Do those who favor killing a child because of her father's crime think that Ethel Waters could or should have been killed?

Putting faces to the problem will help make the problem concrete in the voter's minds. It will help they realize the human cost of the policy and help prevent people from thinking in terms of impersonal "fetuses" and other abstractions ("blobs of tissue") that the abortion industry has used to mislead the American people.


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