Todd Akin: the Republican War on Women Meets the Republican War on Science

Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin has been under a lot of fire since he “misspoke” yesterday, saying that in the case of a “legitimate rape,” “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” His apology afterwards – “it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped” – focused on the (unbelievable) lack of empathy that his comments showed, rather than the facts of the matter. Why?

Because he probably believes the “facts” he’s been told by “doctors.” Akin is a glaring example of where the Republican War on Women meets the Republican War on Science.

What doctors gave Akin his background on rape and pregnancy? The Atlantic has traced Akin’s comments back to a likely source – a pro-life article called “Assault Rape Pregnancies Are Rare,” a short document which runs through shoddy statistical and hypothetical mitigating factors to the conclusion that forcible rape pregnancies are so uncommon as to be “extremely rare.”

Along the way, the article states, by fiat, that miscarriages resulting from the emotional and physical trauma of a rape cuts that rare figure down further. Read the very scientific reasoning displayed:

So what further percentage reduction in pregnancy will this cause? No one knows, but this factor certainly cuts this last figure by at least 50 percent and probably more.

“No on knows, but here’s a statistic I made up because it sounds about right,” seems to be the reasoning. The author, J.C. Willke, is a long-time pro-life doctor who also supported Republican, scientifically unsound arguments like the Ohio Heartbeat legislation and the myth that abortion causes cancer, which has been rejected by the American Cancer Society.

Willke is, of course, an unexceptional case of partisan “science,” the kind of ready-made scientific-sounding arguments that institutes, individuals, and think tanks on the Right incessantly churn out on topics from women’s health to our warming world. Chris Mooney, skeptic and host of The Center for Inquiry’s podcast, Point of Inquiry, wrote a book on this industry and its effect on science and national policy debates called The Republican War on Science. Here’s Mooney in 2006, talking about his book and bad science to (appropriately) Planned Parenthood.

“So what we’re seeing is that the Christian Right is actually minting its own scientific experts” says Mooney in the talk. And even though they’re outliers in the scientific community, these “experts” provide a political commodity. First, simply creating the illusion of debate on a scientific topic is a goal in itself: the Right can say the science isn’t “settled.” The other end is to provide politicians with convenient studies and “facts” that affirm their political viewpoint, like, for example, that abortion is unnecessary. Akin might even believe the pseudoscience. Mooney:

Politicians don’t just wake up in the morning and say, “You know, I think I’ll twist some science today.” What happens is they want to reach a particular goal, and they need information, data, in order to get there. Well, now it’s being provided to them. And they can cherry-pick it at their leisure.

Happens all the time, and only occasionally, as in Akin’s case, does it come back to bite them in the ass. Akin’s statement reflects how terrible the far Christian right is on women’s rights, but his apology hints that he might still believe that his argument is scientifically sound. That, too, is a huge problem, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.


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