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Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Comment Sheds Light on Paul Ryan’s Extreme Stance on Abortion

In 2011, Ryan and Akin co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which attempted to redefine rape by introducing the term “forcible rape.”

Republicans are mounting increasing pressure on Missouri Rep. Todd Akin to end his bid to unseat Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill after he claimed that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancies in cases of what he called “legitimate rape,” a comment he later apologized for. The controversy is spilling in the presidential race due to Akin’s close ties to Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. In 2011, Ryan and Akin co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which attempted to redefine rape by introducing the term “forcible rape.” We speak to Michelle Goldberg, senior writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Her latest article is titled “Todd Akin’s Rape Comment Was Bad, but His Abortion Views Are Much Worse.”


AMY GOODMAN: Republicans are mounting increasing pressure on Missouri Congressmember Todd Akin to end his bid to unseat Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill after he claimed women’s bodies can prevent pregnancies in cases of what he called “legitimate rape.” Republicans had been hoping an Akin victory could help the party regain control of the Senate. Akin is a six-term Congress member with Tea Party backing. The controversy began Sunday when a local TV reporter asked Akin about his opposition to abortion in all cases.

CHARLES JACO: What about in the case of rape? Should it be legal or not?

REP. TODD AKIN: Well, you know, people always want to try and make that as one of those things: “Well, how do you—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. But 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.

AMY GOODMAN: After the interview aired, Todd Akin issued a statement saying he, quote, “misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year,” unquote. Politico revealed this morning that Akin has also recorded a TV ad to apologize for his comments.

REP. TODD AKIN: I’m Todd Akin, and I approve this message. Rape is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize. As the father of two daughters, I want tough justice for predators. I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault, and I pray for them. The fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy. The truth is, rape has many victims. The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold. I ask for your forgiveness.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite Todd Akin’s apology, the Republican establishment has unleashed a campaign to drive Akin out of the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee declared it would withdraw support for Akin, as did the Republican advocacy group Crossroads GPS. Under Missouri law, candidates can withdraw 11 weeks before Election Day. That deadline is 5:00 p.m. today Missouri time.

While presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has criticized Akin’s remarks, questions have been raised about ties between Akin and vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. In 2011, Ryan and Akin co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.

On Monday, President Barack Obama addressed the controversy during a surprise briefing at the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So, what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making healthcare decisions on behalf of women.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Michelle Goldberg, senior writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Her latest piece is titled “Todd Akin’s Rape Comment Was Bad, but His Abortion Views Are Much Worse.” She’s also author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, as well as The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.

Michelle Goldberg, welcome back to Democracy Now!

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Hey, thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So let’s go through everything Akin said, what his views are, and let’s go beyond Sunday, but we’ll start there.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: OK. So, what Akin said, obviously, that was controversial and that differs from the vast majority of his Republican colleagues is only his views about the kind of magic powers of the uterus to activate in cases of rape and somehow kill sperm, and this is a canard that has kind of floated around the far right. The reason that it’s so toxic is because it suggests—it’s because it’s not just because of his view that women should be forced to carry pregnancies to term, even if they’re the result of rape, but because he’s essentially arguing that women who have been impregnated by rape—and, you know, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, that’s about 32,000 women in America a year—that he’s suggesting that they weren’t really raped or that, you know, some of the other people who’ve kind of peddled this junk science says, “Well, you know, the juices don’t flow if she’s raped,” the implication being that if she gets pregnant, it’s because she somehow enjoyed it, or, you know, there’s also an old, medieval superstition about how a woman can’t conceive unless she has—unless she has an orgasm, which seems to feed into some of this. So that’s the part that’s toxic, I think, across the board for even anti-abortion Republicans.

But what there’s no difference between, there’s no difference between Akin’s views on abortion—on abortion policy and on abortion law and that of Ryan and many other Republicans, including many of the Republican headliners at the RNC next week. And I think that one of the reasons there’s such a huge push to get him out of the race is because that’s not particularly something that the Republican Party wants to highlight right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Todd Akin and the man who was charged to call him and tell him to get out of the race, the presumptive vice-presidential Republican nominee, Paul Ryan.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. So, Paul Ryan, like Todd Akin, does not believe that there should be any exceptions to a total abortion ban for cases of rape and incest. He, in the past, has only supported exceptions that would save a mother’s life, not save a mother’s health, you know, and again. So he believes and has always believed and has sponsored legislation to the effect that a woman who gets pregnant through rape should be forced by the government to carry that baby to term.

They’ve collaborated on several pieces of legislation. They co-sponsored the—they co-sponsored what was basically a federal personhood amendment, which would give the full rights of an American citizen to a fertilized egg and which a lot of legal scholars say would not only outlaw all forms of abortion but would outlaw the morning-after pill, would outlaw some forms of birth control, would outlaw—would outlaw common forms of in vitro fertilization. They also both co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which you explained before. And there was a lot of provisions in the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, or H.R. 3. One of the interesting provisions was that they tried to—right now, there’s an—federal law bans federal funding for abortion for low-income women and government employees and military servicemembers. They—well, actually, this is interesting, because Akin and Ryan have also both opposed legislation that would allow funding for abortions for female servicemembers who have been raped. And as you know, you know, rape in the military is at kind of epidemic levels. But federal law right now bans federal funding for abortion in cases of rape and incest. They tried to change that to federal funding bans abortion except in cases of, quote-unquote, “forcible rape.” That, if you heard Todd Akin speaking yesterday on Mike Huckabee’s show, he said that by “legitimate rape” he meant to say “forcible rape.”

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, let’s go right to Huckabee’s show.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that comment of Congressman Akin.

REP. TODD AKIN: I’ve really made a couple of serious mistakes here that were just wrong, and I need to apologize for those. First, I might say that I’ve always been committed to pro-life, and it was because I didn’t want to harm the most vulnerable. But likewise, I care deeply, you know, for the victims of people who have been raped, and they’re equally vulnerable. And a rape is equally tragic. And I made that statement in error. Let me be clear: rape is never legitimate. It’s an evil act that’s committed by violent predators. I used the wrong words in the wrong way. What I said was ill-conceived, and it was wrong. And for that, I apologize.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Todd Akin on the former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s radio show.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. Mike Huckabee, another one who’s speaking at the Republican National Convention, who also believes that rape—that abortion should be banned in cases of rape and incest.

But, so here’s why this phrase “forcible rape” is interesting. In 1999, a guy named John Willke, who’s the founder of the National Right to Life Committee, wrote an article. My guess is it’s the article where Todd Akin got his ideas about female reproductive biology, because it basically—it makes the same argument that he made, that when feminists or pro-choice advocates talk about an abortion exception for rape, it’s kind of a canard because, in fact, rape—pregnancy related from rape is extremely rare because of the trauma of rape sets off a kind of endocrine response that makes pregnancy impossible. One of the things he talks about in this article is he says, you know, pro-life advocates should always make a distinction—should always talk about forcible rape as opposed to rape.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Willke.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: This is Willke. For two—for a couple of reasons. I mean, partly to distinguish it from statutory rape, and he also argues that a lot of women simply claim rape after they’ve become pregnant from consensual sex. So, the fact that this phrase has kind of entered the—not just the Republican lexicon, but that they’ve actually tried to write it into law is significant. And, of course, what it implies is that there is real rape or legitimate rape, and then lesser forms of rape, for which kind of exemptions shouldn’t be made.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, if you talk about forcible rape, which was in the legislation co-sponsored by Akin and Ryan—


AMY GOODMAN: —that suggests there’s something called, what, “voluntary rape.”

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right, exactly, yes, voluntary rape, nonviolent rape. Again, part of what they’re talking about is statutory rape, you know, the kind of—because there’s a massive gap in people’s ages. But again, that means that essentially, you know, a 13-year-old girl with a 30-year-old man, she wouldn’t be kind of entitled to any sort of federal protection if she gets pregnant. But, yeah, beyond that, it’s a little unclear. I mean, forcible rape is a term that’s in a lot of state penal codes, but it’s unclear what that would mean at the federal level in terms of funding, you know, whether it would, say, bar funding in a case where a woman was drugged or, you know, where a woman was simply threatened. To me, the point is, is that it was clearly an attempt to narrow the rape exemption and to say that some forms of rape are not as serious as others and don’t really count.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to stay with John Willke for a minute, the article you mentioned that he wrote called “Assault Rape Pregnancies Are Rare,” in it Willke arguing that rape statistics are uncertain because some women are, quote, “pregnant from consensual intercourse, have later claimed rape,” also writing, quote, “To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape,” unquote. That’s John C. Willke, often referred to as the father of the pro-life movement. You also report that Willke endorsed Governor Romney for president in 2007.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right, well, and not just that Willke endorsed, because, you know, no politician is responsible for their endorsers, but the Romney campaign really touted him as a major surrogate and as a kind of—you know, as a really credible voice to the anti-abortion community.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s not the only one. You’ve got, back in July 2010, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle [asked] on a conservative radio show, “What do you say to a young girl who’s raped by her father? Let’s say she’s pregnant. How do you explain this to her in terms of wanting her to go through with the process of having the baby?” She’s asked this question. And she says, “I think two wrongs don’t make a right. I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for alternatives, which they did. They found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade.”

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. And this, I think, is the real issue. I mean, I don’t think that voters have less reason to be concerned about Todd Akin’s kind of fantastical notions about female reproductive biology. What really matters is the policies that he supports and, you know, the policy of kind of forcing rape victims, like I said, to carry pregnancies to term against their will. And that’s a view that used to be fairly marginal in the Republican Party—I mean, you know, as little as five or six years ago—but has now become incredibly mainstream, to the point where it’s, you know, been espoused by both of the last two Republican vice-presidential nominees.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michelle Goldberg, a senior writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, who has been covering these issues. Now what happens, and where does Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan go?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. Well, my sense is they want him out of the race precisely because he highlights this issue that they don’t want to talk about. If you saw the National Review op-ed—or the National Review editorial saying, you know, “Akin, get out,” it was partly because, as they said, you know, other Republicans hold this minority position but are able to talk about it in a way that doesn’t make them unelectable. Akin can’t do that. So, you know, every day that we’re talking about Akin, we’re not just talking about Akin, we’re also talking about Ryan and, you know, the kind of incredible rightward lurch of the Republican Party. So, they’re trying to get him out. You know, they’ve said they were going to withdraw support. Crossroads GPS, you know, the—


MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right, they’re withdrawing support. But as of now, it doesn’t look like Akin is going anywhere. And I think what will be really interesting to see is the degree to which kind of the Christian right rallies around him, because, you know, some major Christian right organizations, Family Research Council—

AMY GOODMAN: Have already endorsed him.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Yeah, have already—and not just endorsed him, but kind of said that he should stay in the race.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, endorsing him staying. I want to go to Paul Ryan, who’s—no one is calling for him to step out—

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right, certainly.

AMY GOODMAN: —his view on birth control. Earlier this year, Congressman Ryan told David Gregory on Meet the Press he wasn’t concerned about Republicans overplaying their hand on the issue of contraception and women’s health. He suggested the government requiring employers to pay for birth control would violate people’s freedom of religion. Let’s go to that clip.

REP. PAUL RYAN: What we’re getting from the White House with this conscience issue, it’s not an issue about contraception, it’s an issue that reveals a political philosophy that the president is showing that basically treats our constitutional rights as if they’re revocable privileges from our government, not inalienable rights by our creator. And so, what I would simply say is, we’re seeing this new government activism, sort of a paternalistic, arrogant political philosophy, that puts new government-granted rights in the way of our constitutional rights. And so, what I think it really is is that it’s an argument for freedom, for our founding principles and for protecting those constitutional rights, which right now with his new mandate from HHS, like I said, it’s really not about contraception, it’s about violating our First Amendment rights to religious freedom and of conscience.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Congressmember Paul Ryan.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: You know, I don’t have the slightest idea about what his kind of personal belief is about contraception. He’s not like Rick Santorum, who has said that he wanted to use the power of the presidency to kind of inveigh against its evils. What we do know about him is that he co-sponsored the sanctity of human life amendment, the, you know, so-called—I mean, not—sorry, sanctity of human life law, the so-called personhood, federal personhood bill, which, whatever his intentions were regarding contraception, in practice would have banned or at least allowed states to ban many common forms of birth control, including the IUD, the birth control pill, certainly the morning-after pill.

AMY GOODMAN: Because it gives personhood to a fertilized egg.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right, and because some of these methods of birth control work to prevent implantation as opposed to fertilization. So, yes, once kind of sperm meets egg, that entity has as many rights as—you know, as you or I.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have Mitt Romney saying at the Iowa State Fair last year that corporations are people. Then you have Paul Ryan saying that zygotes are people—

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. And nobody—

AMY GOODMAN: —because they’re saying fertilized eggs are people.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: But somehow, nobody will say that women are people. I mean, one of the interesting things about this is that, you know, when Paul Ryan wrote this op-ed about how he reconciles his pro-life absolutism with his kind of Ayn Randian libertarianism, he talked about the rights of the—you know, the rights of the fertilized egg or the rights of the embryo or fetus. He didn’t kind of mention women in this piece even once, I mean, even to kind of consider their rights or agency. It was just a nonissue to him.

AMY GOODMAN: His views on Planned Parenthood and where they stand?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: He wants to completely defund it, you know, as does Mitt Romney. So, in that sense, there’s no difference between them. I think they both want to—you know, in the past, it was really typical for Republicans to want to, you know, put a lot of limits on Planned Parenthood, to make sure money given to Planned Parenthood for family planning activities was sequestered from any of their kind of abortion-related services. No, they both want to completely strip Planned Parenthood of all—and not just Planned Parenthood, all kind of federal family planning programs of all funding.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to an ad approved by the Obama administration that features a series of women talking about Mitt Romney’s plans to defund Planned Parenthood.

Ah, thought we had that. But I also want to talk about Mitt Romney and his stance right now on Akin. He came out pretty quickly—


AMY GOODMAN: —and said this is offensive. But let’s go back a little bit to Sandra Fluke, the young law school student who wanted to testify before Congress about the importance of funding of contraception for students, and Rush Limbaugh’s attack on her—


AMY GOODMAN: —calling her a slut and a prostitute. He even said that they should post video of her online—she should be forced to post video of herself online having sex. When he called her a slut, what exactly were Mitt Romney’s words?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: I believe they were—they were something to the effect of, “I would have used different language.”

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, with Akin, he also came out a little softer at the beginning, before this tidal wave of anger, not as explicitly as he recently just talked about his views being offensive.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, and there’s a couple—there’s a lot of differences between Rush—Rush Limbaugh is obviously a much more powerful figure, with a lot more support, than Todd Akin is. You know, Todd Akin had already kind of defied the Republican Party in this race. You know, he already had alienated a lot of Republicans. And also, this language, because, again, it seemed to kind of impugn the morality of rape victims who become pregnant, including, you know, anti-abortion rape victims, that outraged not just, you know, people on the left, but it also—you know, you have people like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter and people like that calling for him to step aside. There’s a group called Live Action, which is known for sending people undercover into abortion clinics to try to prove that they’re doing something sinister. You know, one of the things that they’ve been trying to prove is that abortion clinics aren’t reporting instances of rape, and so—you know, so the idea that kind of rape victims don’t get pregnant is anathema to them. You know, the personhood people, the people who have been pushing these personhood amendments all across the country—

AMY GOODMAN: That Paul Ryan supports.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right, that Paul Ryan supports, they have people on their staff who go—who they say are—or, I have no—who I’m sure are baby—or, whose mothers were rape victims and who brought them to term and, you know, who go around saying, “I have a right to live.” So, this is not—you know, so, the idea that kind of, again, that rape never results in pregnancy, it’s not as if this is a kind of universal message among the anti-abortion movement, although it is part of the pseudoscience that garners some of them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Michelle Goldberg, senior writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. Her latest piece is “Todd Akin’s Rape Comment Was Bad, but His Abortion Views Are Much Worse.” We’ll link to it at Thanks you so much, Michelle. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.