It is of course sheer political opportunism to seize on Todd Akin’s use of “legitimate” to qualify “rape” as representing his views. There is not a chance that he meant to signify that rape is ever legitimate, but was rather clumsily trying to distinguish stranger rape from drunken acquaintance rape. And the debate over whether abortion following rape should be permitted is largely theoretical, allowing both sides to get righteously worked up over a principle. Akin’s doctor expert claims that less than 1% of rapes result in pregnancy; the New York Times’ medical experts allege that the data is weak but that the pregnancy rate may be more like 5%, still a pretty low number. But if Akin believes he is following God’s mandate, it shouldn’t matter if every rape resulted in a pregnancy—the principle is the same.
The real scandal of Akin’s statement should be his invocation of what may be pseudo-science (if it is; the Times’ experts were not as resoundingly persuasive on the question of whether trauma decreases the chance of pregnancy as I would have expected) and, frankly, the underlying position that would require a women to carry to term, day after day for nine excruciating months, a fetus conceived by stranger rape. If the religious right opposed all killing, they would have a firmer ground to stand on. But they have been consistent supporters of America’s recent wars, which predictably and unavoidably lead to the deaths of innocent civilians—individuals with fully formed consciousness and lives, unlike an embryo. And why should military conscripts be killed, if the principle is that all life is sacred? Some army grunt cannot be held responsible for the imperialist ambitions of his country’s leaders. In the area of war, the religious right makes distinctions and accommodates relative values. But in the area of abortion, those who would make no exception for rape see only the rights of the fetus.
Liberals and the left are trying to conflate opposition to abortion in the case of rape (fanaticism, in my view) with any effort to condition abortion on parental consent, say, or to outlaw very late term abortions (more defensible positions). Such a strategy is, again, opportunistic, but if it impales the Republicans, I will not shed too many tears.