Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On Todd Akin, 'Facts', and Demagoguery

Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in the state of Missouri, recently made some controversial statements. When asked about his stance on opposing abortion, even in cases of rape, he responded with the following:

“It seems to me, 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 of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

As you might imagine, Akin has caught serious heat over the comments. It's predictable that he would catch flack from the media and Democratic politicians, but in the wake of the comments Akin has faced almost as much criticism from the Right, many of whom -- from Michelle Malkin to Jonah Goldberg to Ann Coulter to Mitt Romney -- are calling for him to step down. It's an open question what portion of the reaction from the Right is motivated by a genuine concern over Akin's fitness for office, and what amount is naked political calculation, though I suspect the vast majority of it is the latter.

I have a couple motivations for weighing in here: 1) The event is causing significant inter-conservative turmoil and friction in a way I haven't seen in quite a while, which I would like to attempt to soothe somewhat. 2) The large amount of unscientific pedantry and demagoguery being thrown Akin's way needs a riposte, and I don't see anyone else offering it.

There seem to be three elements of the issue worth discussing, and since they are being flagrantly conflated and confused by many, let me make some clear demarcations. There's the policy dimension i.e. Akin's proposal for no legal exceptions for rape in hypothetical anti-abortion legislation. There's the substance of his defense of his policy position. And lastly, there's the way he has gone about phrasing and framing his defense, and the tone that he's done it in. Of course, these all overlap and intersect to some degree (which I will also discuss), but too often one is addressing one aspect or the other, while another person is thinking about it on a different level, causing confusion.


While Akin's policy prescription is obviously scandalous to anyone on the Left, we can effectively bracket out their concerns because they don't merely object to the absence of an exception for abortion in cases of rape, they object to not having on-demand abortion for anyone, anywhere, any time and for any reason. Their objections are thus moot.

However, on this matter, even within the pro-life movement there is a diversity of opinion. Some support exceptions for rape and incest, others do not, and both have defensible, respectable cases for their position. And because we support a federalist solution to the problem, after Roe is hypothetically overturned, returning the issue to the states, we can accommodate a diversity of views on this side issue. Some states could draft anti-abortion legislation without exceptions for rape, and others could include exceptions. Therefore, Republicans and conservatives generally tolerate honest dissent on this secondary matter, while still remaining united on the primary issue of the 99% of abortions that aren't due to rape.

On Akin's policy stance, whatever division exists is easily accommodated in the conservative, Republican framework, and of course those on the Left hate it the same way they hate any restrictions on abortion. So the policy angle can't really be the fundamental issue here.

The Substance of Akin's Defense

This is where the dispute really lies. First, it's worth noting that Akin's most controversial remarks were prefatory, not his actual response to the question about his policy. His actual response to the question is that rapists should be punished for their heinous crime, not children. But since his prefatory remarks are the primary source of controversy, let's look at his claims (we'll get to the wording of his claims in the next section):

  • Rape is sometimes falsely accused (hence "legitimate rape" as opposed to false accusations of rape), or is defined in a way that most would not recognize it as rape (say a 20 year-old and 17 year-old couple having consensual intercourse in a state with an age of consent at 18).
  • Rape pregnancies are rare. This can mean various things, but he probably means both that it's rare absolutely i.e. a tiny fraction of all pregnancies are due to rape, and that pregnancy results from rape less often than it would from ordinary, unprotected, consensual intercourse.
  • There is a biological reaction to rape which affects female physiology and decreases the likelihood of impregnation.

These are his fundamental claims. The first is uncontroversial; it's a fact that rape is sometimes falsely accused, and that some statutory rape laws are written so as to define certain sex acts as 'rape' that many would not consider it to be.

Half of the 2nd bullet point is also uncontroversial. It's a fact that rape takes place much less often than consensual sex, and that pregnancy from rape is itself rare, absolutely. However, if he meant that the frequency of pregnancy-cum-rape is rare compared to the frequency it occurs in consensual sex, per sex act, then the claim becomes controversial.

A much-cited 1996 study suggests that it isn't significantly more rare, in the latter sense. Though there are questions about the legitimacy of the conclusions of that study, as well as other factors that need to be considered, such as the fact that consensual sex has the feature of allowing for partners to practice pregnancy-prevention; rape has no such feature. Or that only 11.7% of the victims sought immediate medical attention, which leaves open a significant possibility of false allegations (or diagnoses) of rape. In any case, his use of 'rare' is certainly defensible and in no sense demonstrably false. Even on the study's chosen terms of per-sex-act rape-pregnancy of those raped who are age 12-47, 5% is still compatible with the descriptor 'rare'.

The amorphous character of these numbers -- and thus their meaninglessness -- is illustrated in contradictions between studies. Another article at Scientific American is being cited by some, purporting to be a corrective to Akin. In that article they cite DOJ statistics stating that "in 2004-2005, 64,080 women were raped." In the aforementioned 1996 survey, they put the number of rape pregnancies at 32,000 a year. Some quick math seems to suggest that in 2004-2005, 100% of women who got raped got pregnant from it. Given the manifold complications in studying the topic, such contradictions are not entirely inexplicable -- aforementioned ones, reported versus unreported rapes, forcible rape versus statutory rape, false allegations of rape etc. -- but then don't run around waving the sheets of statistics in your hand, claiming to have disproved Akin. You haven't.

The third bullet point is the real sticking point. If there is such a biological mechanism, it hasn't yet been identified clearly (although there are at least viable candidates). However, a biological mechanism has been identified that links increases in stress to a decrease in fertility. One need only make an inference to rape increasing stress and anxiety in order to link rape to a decrease female fertility. And given research on that topic, that seems a very reasonable inference. Not that this means that Akin is clearly, unquestionably correct in this aspect of his remarks, but he isn't obviously wrong either, contra the seething mass of demagogues. 

The Framing of His Defense

No one questions this aspect of the critique of Akin. By just about everyone's reckoning, he screwed up badly here and on multiple levels. There are times to point out that certain charges of rape are illegitimate, but not here, not now, and not in this way. His use of "legitimate rape" wording was a big mistake. Further, his claim that the female body has something to "shut the whole thing down" is misleading and poorly worded, even if he is right. If there's any truth to the claim, it's that the stress and anxiety produced from a rape causes certain hormones that hinder reproduction to start producing excessively, and decrease the rate of conception by some factor. If you're going to get into that issue -- which is itself a bad political decision -- then at least be able to phrase your position in a more accurate, intelligent manner.

And, as a politician, he should have gone out of his way to cushion his remarks with disclaiming statements of care. Such as noting that some pregnancies do occur from rape (however rarely), and that such victims need care, and how he supports groups which offer victimized women alternatives and counseling. Or at least something along these lines. He spoke about rape and abortion and only really spoke about the rapist and the conceived child! Mostly treating the woman dismissively as a nonentity or an intermediary. This is quite careless and offensive, and definitely deserves criticism. He must make the point that, though there are competing interests, especially those of the victim, he still concludes that the life of the child supersede those interests.

He could have made substantially the same point in a different manner without giving anyone a legitimate reason to rebuke him, but on this level he failed utterly.

The Response

But enough about Akin. The response to his remark is much more interesting to me. On the Left, there has been predictable reaction: straw-manning Akin's argument (claiming Akin claimed rape can't cause pregnancy, which he never did); boiler-plate vitriolic hysteria; confused or disingenuous outrage; 'scientific' demagoguery. You know the drill.

On the Right, as I've noted above, there exists division. While many movement conservatives are pragmatically concerned about the gravity of this election cycle and thus want him to step down, others think that defending him -- to the extent possible -- is a matter of principle, either on the substance of the matter itself or in solidarity with our brothers in arms. While I'm obviously defending him, my sympathies are torn by these two completely legitimate concerns. What we absolutely should not do -- which a disturbing number of conservatives are doing -- is pile on, in one voice with the Left, denouncing Akin as ignorant or 'wrong'. Sure, criticize him for his carelessness, his callousness, or his failure as a politician. And if that carelessness seems likely to cost us a Senate seat, then advocate for him to step down, but don't pretend it was anything more than a gaffe.

The most obnoxious of all the responses have to be the pedants looking to 'fact-check' or 'refute' Akin's claims (such as The Atlantic and i09 pieces linked above). The only empirical or quasi-empirical claims he made are that A) rape pregnancies are rare (true) and B) that female biology makes conception less likely in rape victims by some degree (not demonstrably true, but not demonstrably false). If you read his statements in a manner that best suits your argument -- such as reading 'rare' to mean 'comparatively rare per sex act', rather than 'absolutely rare' -- then don't complain when I point out that there is nothing necessary about reading his comments in such a manner or that, even if you do, he still isn't necessarily wrong.

Generally, the response has been disappointingly emotional and reactionary across a wide swath of responders. What is there to get so upset about? It was already known that Republicans are Pro-life, so no novel developments on that count. It was similarly known that many Republicans oppose rape exceptions in theoretical abortion law, on coherent, morally serious grounds. Again, not news. The fact that a politician bungled a question, made dubious (but not false) empirical claims, and his indelicate and flippant response came off as calloused toward women? Fair game, but it's a back-page story at best. A politician's error is costing one party a likely Senate seat in a vitally important election year, and the other party is using it, not only to possibly win that particular Senate race, but as a tool to paint Republicans in general as anti-scientific, anti-woman, etc. and leverage this caricature for broad political advantage? Aha, now this is worth getting worked-up over, for those on all sides. And as long as we see it clearly for what it is, it's not a problem. Let's just be sure to harshly condemn those elements diabolically pretending it's about something else.


  1. You've completely missed what I personally found offensive about Akin's remarks. He was continuing to spread both a medieval superstition that was used to disenfranchise rape victims, and a modern superstition that every pregnancy somehow gets a rubber stamp from God rather than being the simple product of (reasonably well understood) biological processes.

    He's on a House science committee, he's supposed to not be so gravely misinformed. And he's damn sure supposed to know how to learn when his mistakes about scientifically understood phenomena are wrong, such as there not being contraceptive mechanisms in a woman's body to fend off rape babies.

    "Legitimate rape" was a gaffe, and I understand why people are upset about that, because it sounds like he's accusing most pregnant rape victims of being liars. But I'm most displeased by his utter ignorance on something that most 7th grade children could tell you is bull, and his reluctance to admit that he's demonstrably wrong is what's most offensive and embarrassing as an American.

    1. I can't tell whether you've read my piece. By saying I missed what you found offensive, it seems like your objection is to my irrelevance, not that I'm wrong in my claims. But you go on to claim that Akin was wrong about the 'science' of rape and that he's "demonstrably wrong" -- precisely what I denied to be the case and argued for my conclusion. Hence you have to argue against my claim, and you haven't. You've made assertions.