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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Todd Akin and Manufactured Controversies

There are two things about the Todd Akin controversy that amazes me.  1) that it happened at all (especially considering the complete lack of controversy over Biden's recent bout of foot-in-mouth-disease) and 2) that it's still going on.

When I first saw the headlines after Akin's interview, I could see right away that there was a case of how not to report the news going on again.  The headlines made it obvious.  Virtually every headline had the words "legitimate rape" in it, in quotes, followed by claims that Akin said women who've been rapes "don't", "won't" or "can't" get pregnant.  A few had some variant of how women can somehow "shut down" their bodies if they're raped to prevent pregnancy.

Of course, with headlines like that, people were in full freakout mode.  I expected that from the political left, of course.  They'll freak out over the most minor of gaffes by those on the political right, while pretending the most heinous comments from their own side never happened, or simply brush them off as irrelevant.  What amazed me is the vicious attacks from those on the political right.  From what I've seen (and I admit, I've missed a lot of it) the attacks on Akin from his fellow conservatives has far exceeded the attacks from his liberal opponents.

The problem is, everyone seems to be freaking out over what they think he said, or some projection of what he apparently meant when he said it.

What was it that he actually said?  Well, see for yourself.

Here's the transcript of his actual words.

Well, you know, people always want to try and make that as one of those things... "Well, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question?"
It seems to me, 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. Let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
And then all hell broke loose.  But why?  What did he say that was really so wrong or terrible?  Let's look at the key phrases everyone is blowing a gasket over one part at a time.

"...from what I understand from doctors that's really rare."

Okay.  So what's controversial about that?  Pregnancy from rape is rare.  He's not saying it doesn't happen, as so many headlines and commentators have claimed.  He just said that doctors have told him it's rare.  How rare?  Well, that's difficult to say, since rape statistics are understandably questionable in the first place (more on that below).  What percentage of rapes result in pregnancy?  There have been many claims that the pregnancy rate in rape cases is the same as for consensual sex, but I'm not seeing any legitimate data to back those claims up.  Then there's this example.

Pregnancy is rare after a single act of forcible rape. In a prospective study of 4000 rapes in Minnesota, there were no pregnancies. In a retrospective study covering nine years in Chicago, there were no pregnancies. In a prospective study of 117 rapes there were no pregnancies among either the 17 victims who received DES or the 100 who did not.
Eugene F. Diamond, MD
Professor of Pediatrics and Past Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine
April 11, 1985 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine

Now, that's old data in just one area, but I don't know that women in Minnesota are any more or less fertile then women in other parts of the US, and while the number of reported rapes may have changed, I have not seen anything to suggest the percentage of pregnancies as a result of rape has increased since then.

So basically, then, his first statement - that pregnancy due to rape is rare - is true.  He didn't say it doesn't happen, or that he doesn't believe raped women get pregnant.  Obviously, he knows it happens, and that is reflected in the interview.  Yet if you read only the headlines, you'd think he said that rape due to pregnancy doesn't happen, which is clearly false.

What's the next part?  Ah, yes.  This one.

"If it's a legitimate rape..."

People are just losing their heads over the use of the word "legitimate."  There are all sorts of accusations that he was somehow implying that there's rape, and then there's rape-rape.  Kinda like Whoopi Goldberg.

Now if only people had flipped out over Whoopi's comments the way they are now over Akin's comments, because hers were far more condescending and insulting to rape victims!

What confuses me is how anyone could have any confusion about the use of the word "legitimate."  To be honest, I think Akin's detractors know full well what he was talking about, but it's far more satisfying to get all offended and pretend he was saying something else.  It fits into the "Republican War on Women" narrative so much better.

For those who still refuse to see the obvious, he's talking about ... well, legitimate cases of rape vs things like false accusations or false claims of rape. 

Here is where things get muddy.  Rape statistics are unclear at the best of times.  Part of the problem is that there is an unknown number of women who never report their rapes, or report them years after the event.  It's said that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted (all types of sexual assault, not only rape) in their life time, which is meaningless, since it's a prediction.  Then there's the problem of false rape reports.  Again, it's hard to know how many false rape claims there are.  On one end of the spectrum, it's claimed that only 2 percent of reported rapes are false (which is higher then the percentage of abortions due to rape).  Yet a US Dept of Justice report from 1996 found that about 25-26% of rape cases were proven to be false!

So here we have a problem of there being an unknown number of unreported rape cases, coupled with what may be as much as 25% of reported rapes being proven false (some have claimed that number is actually as high as 51%, but I don't find it reliable).  It's entirely possible the unreported vs false accusations cancel each other out, but there's no way to know.

To further mess up the numbers, there's also statutory rape, which can include consensual sex as well as forcible or coercive rape.

In other words, when it comes to rape statistics, we really do need to know what is, or isn't, "legitimate" rape!

In context of the interview, this sort of thing was obviously what he was referring to.  The headlines would have us believe he was somehow claiming that rape victims weren't really raped, or somehow making light of the seriousness of the crime committed against rape victims.  Personally, I think that's a stretch.  It does make me wonder, though.  Just how could he have been more clear?  Some have suggested that he should have just said "rape" without any qualifiers, but in context of the interview, that would have actually made his statement worse.  So what would be a more appropriate word to us?  Real?  Authentic?  True?  Actual?  I can think of a lot of potential adjectives, but they all end up making his statement sound worse, too.

Which leaves us back with the word "legitimate."  Personally, I can't think of a better, less offensive, way to differentiate between actual rape events and false claims. 

Which leads us now to the next part that has people's heads spinning.

"... the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Wow, have the responses been over the top to this part!  Akin is accused of all sorts of things, from being stupid, unscientific, and crazy, to associating him with Nazi experiments and linking him to some bizarre claim from the past that "spastic tubes" somehow prevent pregnancy.

First, let's make it very clear what he ISN'T saying.  He is NOT saying women who have been raped do not, cannot or will not get pregnant.  That's what's in the headlines and in the interpretations.  That's not what he said.  He is also not suggesting that women have some magical ability to voluntarily make their bodies prevent pregnancy during rape.  Again, that is something others are claiming is meant, but it's not what he actually said.

Is there any truth to the statement?

Actually, yes, and it's been known for ages.  Long before we knew about the chemicals our bodies produce, and the roles hormones play in reproduction in particular, it was known that trauma and high levels of stress can affect a woman's ability to conceive and/or prevent miscarriage.  Such things affect male fertility, too, but when it comes to women, our bodies actually do have ways to prevent pregnancy when conditions are not optimal for conception.

First, there are the effects of stress on the reproductive system.  This can be long term stress, of it can be stress from a single traumatic event. 

The female body is, from a purely biological point of view, a baby making machine.  We are awash with chemicals and hormones that are there to ensure optimal fertility.  That may not be true as individuals but, as a general statement for healthy women, that's how our bodies work.  Aside from stress, a number of things can trigger our bodies into becoming hostile to conception.  Nutritional deprivation is one such example.  When we're starving, women are less likely to conceive, and if we do conceive, we're more likely to miscarry.  Likewise, if we have too much or too little of specific nutrients, it can prevent pregnancy.  I remember seeing an interview, several decades ago, with a doctor from a Toronto fertility clinic.  He talked about how most of his patients didn't need extreme interventions such as IVF; most needed to only make minor lifestyle changes.  He described two cases to illustrate.  One couple he treated lived an extremely "healthy" lifestyle.  They were both marathon runners, and were in peak physical condition, yet they could not conceive.  In the end, it turned out the wife did not have enough body fat.  They relaxed their marathon training regimen, gained some body fat, and promptly got pregnant.  Another woman he described was also a "healthy" eater.  He talked about how one of the first things he did was look at the palms.  When he saw this woman's palms, he noted a distinct orange cast to them.  As he talked to her, he learned that she had read a lot about antioxidants and had been supplementing with beta carotene.  For some reason, she was taking very high amounts of it, which is why her palms started to turn orange.  She stopped taking the excessive supplements and was soon pregnant.

Calorie restriction can also affect fertility.  Our bodies can't tell the difference between starvation due to famine or starvation due to dieting.  It can tell when we are not getting enough nutrition to support a pregnancy, causing changes in our chemical balance that make it more difficult to conceive.

These are just a few examples of ways our bodies create conditions to prevent pregnancy by shutting down our reproductive system.  In the context of Akin's interview, it is the stress related responses of our bodies that kick in, creating conditions hostile to conception.  Such conditions also cause miscarriages and prevent lactation.  This is old news.

Do women still get pregnant, even in non-optimal conditions?  Obviously we do, and he never claimed we didn't.  He just said that our bodies "try to shut that whole thing down."  Which is accurate.  Sometimes, it fails.  The idea that he was suggesting women can somehow control whether or not they can become pregnant is ludicrous, but that doesn't stop people from making that assumption.

Now, I have no idea who Akin is and, frankly, I don't care all that much.  What I do care about is accuracy and truthfulness.  I've seen his interview and compared it to the many headlines and column inches dedicated to tearing him apart, and it bothers the heck out of me.  The attacks against him are inaccurate, in that they claim he said things he didn't, and dishonest in how they extrapolate meanings to what he said that are, at best, pure conjecture or, at worst, deliberate misrepresentation for the purpose of destroying him both personally and politically. 

Was what he said clumsy, "misspoken" and or insensitive?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  I think the "shut things down" part of what he said was clumsy and unclear, but only to those who don't know anything about the effects of stress on the reproductive system. 

Was what he said false?  No.  Though he was repeating what he says he was told by doctors, and he was in no position to expand on the claims during the interview, his actual statements were correct.

Of course, you won't know that by the headlines. 

With all the focus on one sentence of what he said, people are completely forgetting about the closing sentence.

You know, I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

People are completely ignoring what he's pointing out here, which is that it is the rapist that did something wrong and should be punished for it.  This brings up the obvious question for pro-abortionists using the rape and incest argument: Why should any child conceived in rape be killed because of what the father did?


1 comment:

  1. Well-taken, although I suspect some might have issues with the "baby-making machine" phrase, as true as it might be.

    Optics, you know.


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