There's no doubt that Todd Akin's stunningly misguided understanding of female anatomy, as seen in his claim that raped women can't get pregnant, represented yet another instance of the Republican party's estrangement from science. But the GOP's refusal to grapple with facts goes beyond biology: there's some very basic mathematics that they appear ignorant of as well.
The polling showing just how unpopular the party's official anti-abortion position (adopted by the platform committee this week and identical to the policy that Akin tried to use junk science to support) is as follows: just 20% of Americans believe abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances", compared to 25% who say that it should "always be legal" and the vast majority – 52% – who say that it should be "legal only under certain circumstances".
You can make the party's official position compatible with the more moderate view of the actual Republican candidates only with a kind of magical thinking. This was well put by the party chairman Reince Priebus earlier this week: "This is the platform of the Republican party. It's not the platform of Mitt Romney." Ta da! Pay no attention to the men behind the curtain. Hey, look: there's Ann!
Ann Romney and 14 other women will speak at the Republican national convention (where the platform will be officially adopted) – almost half of the full list of those invited to address the gathering. But those women dress a campaign stage on which actual female elected officials are outnumbered by men about 10 to one, a gender gap that probably doesn't alarm Republican political operatives so much as the equally stark gap that exists in the polls.
In at least three swing states – Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia – Romney trails Obama by over 20% among women. My own fealty to the scientific method prevents me from drawing a definitive conclusion about the cause and effect connection between those numbers and the fact that the same three states have in the past year seen GOP state representatives push some of the nation's most restrictive legislation regarding access to abortion: Pennsylvania lawmakers would have trumped Virginia's now-notorious "transvaginal ultrasound" requirement by forcing women to accept personal copies of the ultrasound. Ohio Republicans tried to criminalize all abortions where a "fetal heartbeat" could be heard.
But I do believe the disconnect between Romney and female voters parallels the disconnect that motivates Republicans to so zealously interfere with women's reproductive functions: they just don't know women that well. In a party so dominated by men, do GOP officials even get a chance to think about the women in their lives in a way that is more intimate than a voting booth?
Civil rights for oppressed minorities have always increased with the integration of those minorities into public (and private) life. Martin Luther King Jr's eloquent speeches brought black Americans' struggles into people's living rooms. The quiet normalcy of gay couples has propelled acceptance of gay marriage. And living and working with women as equals forces men to think of them as more than their parts.
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Respect for women's reproductive choices, and the fraught circumstances that can surround the decision to get an abortion, doesn't even come from knowing women who have been raped – it comes from knowing women.
Akin unwittingly illuminated that context. Our national conversation about the definition of rape made clear the larger social issues that fade when we focus so narrowly on "abortion". When we talk about access to abortion, the subject is really women's rights and lives and not a medical procedure.
Someone dealing with the actual decision to terminate a pregnancy isn't ignoring the issue that dominates pro-life legislation – the moment when life begins – she is simply unable to ignore the other questions that need to be answered: is she ready for a child? Who is the child's father – and is he ready? And, yes, how does she feel about the act that brought the child into being?
You can square the polls showing growth in the number of Americans who call themselves "pro-life" with the still-large majority of Americans who believe that there are some cases when abortion should be legal if you keep in mind that the most important conversations we have about abortion aren't with pollsters. They're with the women thinking about the questions above. What's more, most Americans know that calling yourself "pro-life" is not the same as robbing someone else of their choice. Here's another example of how Akin and his compatriots could use a maths lesson. His argument about whether or not women who are raped even need abortions is relevant to policy (rather than to science alone) because Akin (along with vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan) last year sought via HR3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, to ban any federal money going to pay for any abortion, even if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
Akin justified the cruelty of that position with junk science, but he might well just have done some economic research to see if such a restriction was warranted. The Hyde amendment already bans most federal funding for abortions and in 2001, the last year for which there is public data, only 81 women received abortions paid for by government funds.
This compared to 251 congressmen who voted for HR3. It would probably behove Akin and the bill's other supporters (just about a 10th of which were women) to make individual appeals to those women rather than use the impersonal bludgeon of congressional legislation to force their actions. The question as to whether those individual appeals would be effective is another issue.
In fact, one wonders if in sitting down with a rape or incest survivor, these politicians might find themselves the ones whose convictions waiver.