Akin’s comment triggers biting responses

The medical logic of Todd Akin might have sounded entirely plausible to Steve Martin’s “Saturday Night Live” character Theodoric, the Medieval barber/surgeon, who explained one ailment as arising, “from an imbalance of bodily humors caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”

By Eric Mink

Todd Akin’s amiable embrace of nonsense science and his numbskull decision to modify the word “rape” with the word “legitimate” are electronically enshrined for eternity. His televised interview with Fox 2 reporter Charles Jaco barely two weeks ago made the Republican congressman and Senate candidate an irresistible target for mockery, and many took their shots.

In his St. Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed column, veteran editorialist Kevin Horrigan bemoaned the national media’s discovery of what had been Missouri’s little secret. “We never knew what he would say next,” Horrigan wrote of Akin’s propensity for vacuous oral discharge. “But whatever it was, we knew that there was a good chance it would be ridiculous.”

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Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker lasered in on Akin’s blithe reference to a female biological process that supposedly works to prevent pregnancy if it senses the woman’s been raped. Given that no such process exists, Borowitz’s satire had Akin propose the deployment of women’s uteruses for national security duty at airports and along borders. “I would just love to see an evildoer get past defenses like that,” said Borowitz’s Akin. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was as smart as a uterus.”

And in an appropriately outraged commentary on this page, Jewish Light Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Bob Cohn wrote that “oxymoron” didn’t have enough oomph to properly characterize Akin’s “legitimate rape” phrasing. Cohn suggested “oxy-idiot.”

When I heard Akin cite “doctors” as his source of information about those mysterious forces within the female body, I envisioned “Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber.”

Introduced in a sketch during the third season of “Saturday Night Live” (1977-’78) and played by guest host Steve Martin, the barber/surgeon Theodoric had only one treatment available for the diseased and injured of his English village in the Middle Ages: bleeding.

But Theodoric believed medicine was improving. “Why, just 50 years ago,” he reassures the distraught mother of a sick girl, “we would have thought that your daughter’s illness was brought on by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays, we know that Isabel is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”

Where did this “rape rarely produces pregnancy” myth originate? Tim Townsend and Blythe Bernhard of the Post-Dispatch out-reported much of the national press and traced it to a 1972 article that appeared not in a scientific or medical journal but in a book funded by a major U.S. anti-abortion group.

After Akin’s broadcast blathering, professors at some of the nation’s most distinguished medical schools described this notion as “absurd,” “nonsense” and “just nuts.” A senior official at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told Reuters that the idea is “not grounded in any physiology or scientifically valid data.”

Mockery of quackery is richly deserved, but let’s be clear about something:

It is not Todd Akin’s steadfast opposition to abortion, which Charles Jaco was probing when Akin made his medically false, humanly insensitive comments, that merits mocking. Yes, Akin’s views—officially shared by the Republican Party—are extreme, but there is no indication that he has ever been anything but sincere and consistent about them. For him, it’s a matter of faith, and, as such, it needs no scientific endorsement.

But Americans overall are not extreme about the issue of abortion. They are, rather, thoughtful about it and cognizant of its complexity.

Very large majorities, according to the widely respected General Social Survey for 2010, believe pregnant women should be able to choose to have an abortion if their health is seriously endangered (86 percent), if they’ve been raped (79 percent) or if there are strong signs that the fetus has serious defects (74 percent).

But a majority of Americans (57 percent) also reject the idea that abortions should be available to any woman at any time in any situation for any reason without any restrictions whatsoever.

It’s no surprise that Americans wrestle with these matters. As I’ve written previously, if women may be stripped of the right to control what happens inside their own bodies, then the principle of individual liberty is a sham. Even so, there comes a time when the living human entity within a pregnant woman acquires its own right to legal protection and to the possibilities inherent in its own eventual individual liberty.

Nonsense science is another matter, however, and there’s something peculiar in the way it pops up, more often than not on the Republican side, in connection with female sexuality.

It turns out, for example, that my medieval-barber metaphor isn’t much of a stretch. The Guardian newspaper in Great Britain found references to a pregnancy-rape connection in “Fleta,” an English legal text of the 13th century. According to “Fleta,” if a woman accuses a man of rape, pregnancy serves as a kind of lie detector, “… for without a woman’s consent, she could not conceive.”

So the flip side of Akin’s fantasy that the bodies of raped women repel impregnation is the notion that a pregnant woman who claims to have been raped must be lying.

Then there was the interview last October in which Rick Santorum, at the time a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, warned of the “dangers of contraception.” By separating sexual activity from procreation, he cautioned, birth control creates “sexual libertines” who engage in sex merely for pleasure. The primary consumers of birth control, it’s worth noting, are women.

And an uproar earlier this year in Virginia involved proposed legislation under which women who sought abortions would experience mandatory vaginal penetration to generate early-term ultrasound scans. The effort failed there, but such requirements are already in force in Texas and North Carolina.

What I sense linking and running just under the surface of these examples and others is a fundamental fear of female sexuality. It’s the bizarre notion that women are creatures of prodigious sexual appetites that must be controlled to protect society, the family unit and the virtuous men who would otherwise be victimized by women’s wanton predation.

The roots of such a fixation, which found expression in the witchcraft trials of colonial America, reach considerably deeper than the Middle Ages—stretching at least as far back as the third chapter of Genesis: Eve tempts Adam with an apple from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. Adam succumbs. As punishment for their disobedience, God banishes them from the idyllic garden, condemns Eve to excruciating pain in childbirth and condemns Adam to toil “all the days of thy life.”

No wonder women and sex scare these guys so much.