Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri speaks at the March for Life.
Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri speaks at the March for Life.


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(WOMENSENEWS)–I see danger. By highlighting the rights of specific women in the most extreme cases to do what they wish with their own body, may we, the people who support a woman’s right to choose in any and all cases, be tacitly giving our approval to the argument that only certain women have a right to abortions?

That’s what I’m worrying about in the wake of Missouri’s U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s now internationally famous “legitimate rape” comments.

We are witnessing a rare political moment: Almost everyone in the country seems to agree that the man is an idiot, a disgrace, or both. Not only did Akin try to make up science out of thin air, he also made a dubious distinction where obviously none should exist – “legitimate” rape versus some abstract “non-legitimate” rape.

He has also opened a conversation at this pivotal moment about what are legitimate and non-legitimate, or less legitimate, reasons that women should have access to abortions. Is abortion only OK if a woman has been raped? That idea is seeping into public discourse as a disconcerting byproduct.

If we aren’t careful–and don’t call it out–it could further undermine our political commitment to abortion rights as something that belongs to every woman in any circumstance as part of her right to privacy, as set forth by the Supreme Court in Roe. v. Wade in 1973.

All Riled Up

It’s still unclear what parts of Akin’s comments have otherwise virulently anti-abortion lawmakers so riled up.

Was it the use of the word “legitimate,” thereby implying that not all rape is a crime? Probably not, since the “forcible rape” language he co-sponsored with vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan in 2011 as part of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act holds the same implication – that some rapes are more acceptable than others. That language was later removed.

Was it the fact that Akin gave himself away as having no idea what he was talking about when he made a statement that had absolutely no grounding in science or fact? As the party behind concocted links between abortion and breast cancer and the HPV vaccine and retardation, this also seems unlikely to be the answer.

What we do know is that the outrage is not coming from a recognition that women have an unassailable right to control their own bodies, and that a woman who has been raped should not be saddled with a lifelong reminder of one of the worst traumas imaginable and a responsibility that will be forever hers and hers alone.

Most likely, the GOP backpedaling is nothing more than some sense by the Romney-Ryan team that they’ve hit a wall on this issue. After so much marginalization of reproductive rights, the polling numbers are probably telling the candidates that they can’t go to this outrageous extreme, or at least they can’t do it in such a well-publicized way. (On Tuesday, the Republican Party reaffirmed it’s anti-abortion stance with no exceptions for rape or incest. The Obama campaign has dubbed it the “Akin Amendment.”)

The Rights of All

Of course we should all jump down the throat of anyone who says that abortions should be denied to those who are pregnant as a result of rape.

But we can’t let that narrow the cause. We have to also insist on the right of all women, regardless of the circumstances of their pregnancies, to choose their own fate.

The Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade did not distinguish among the different ways a woman might get pregnant or the reasons she might have for wanting to abort that pregnancy. We need to remember that Roe v. Wade was a decision grounded in the right to privacy.

Anyone on the sidelines of that woman’s life has to recognize that it is none of our business to know the circumstances of how a woman became pregnant (unless the pregnancy was the result of a criminal assault).

It is our business to make sure that when women and teens do find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, they have the absolute right to make the decision of whether to maintain the pregnancy, the most personal decision imaginable, and one that is protected by law that the right is theirs and theirs alone to make.

Deena Shanker is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter.

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