Garance Franke-Ruta, writing in the Atlantic, has an article entitled “A Canard that will not die: ‘legitimate rape’ doesn’t cause pregnancy.” Congressman and candidate for Missouri Senator, Todd Akin, asserted to KTVI-TV that it’s really rare for “legitimate rape” to result in pregnancy.
Franke-Ruta makes the case that this assertion didn’t come out of left-field, but instead is something that keeps cropping up among pro-life politicians. Sometimes they call it “forcible rape” or “assault rape”. The abortion debates make more sense when viewed not so much as a “valuing life” issue but rather as an issue of disapproving of women having unsanctioned sex and enjoying it. Pregnancy is her punishment for such behavior; abortion and birth control are a sneaky way of escaping righteous punishment.
By pretending that “legitimate rape” doesn’t cause pregnancy, advocates of such a distinction can assure themselves that there are no difficult decisions to make because the pregnancy itself is evidence that, on some level, she was really enjoying herself and is only calling it rape now because she had second thoughts after the passion of the moment had passed. And since she enjoyed herself, the punishment of pregnancy is just.
Now, as a logical matter, if one accepts the premise that at the moment of conception, there is created a human life entitled to our full moral consideration — in other words, if the sanctity of human life comes from its biological properties rather than its biographical properties – it makes sense to not include an exception for rape or incest or really, anything. If you conclude that the mother’s right to bodily integrity is subordinate to society’s right to dictate that she use her body to preserve the life of the growing child, then it shouldn’t matter too much how the child got there. It’s not as if the fetus could help the manner of its conception.
But, putting it into such stark terms is politically difficult and makes some people uneasy — they are more comfortable if they can focus almost exclusively on the good things they want for the child rather than what they are imposing on the woman by mandating those good things for the child. They want to justify the imposition by assuming that the woman is morally culpable for the state she’s in. The fiction that, “if she’s pregnant, she probably liked it” helps thread that needle in cases of rape. And that is probably why the canard has such staying power.