By Garrett FitzGerald
As responses to Rep. Todd Akin's (R-MO) staggeringly ignorant remarks about "legitimate rape"continue to dominate the news cycle, a trend is emerging among conservative lawmakers and pundits to denounce Akin as some sort of GOP fringe element. This trend goes all the way to the well-coiffed top of the party, with GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney speaking out on the matter yesterday, decrying as "insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong" Akin's claims that a woman's body has some sort of internal mechanism to "shut that whole [pregnancy] thing down" in the case of "legitimate rape."
Not all of the conservative response to Akin's comments was negative, however, with some conservative pundits and organizations rallying to his cause. CNN's Erick Erciksonand Dana Loesch both attempted to deflect criticism away from Rep. Akin, and Family Research Council's political action committee head Connie Mackey indicated that the group "strongly supports" Rep. Akin, whom she claims is getting "is getting a really bad break here," presumably unlike the more than half a billion rape victims around the globe whose experiences Rep. Akin and his supporters continue to actively delegitimize.
But here's the thing: Rep. Akin is not some "bad apple" that the GOP can write off as a fringe element in regards to women's health and reproductive rights. As the Romney campaign scrambles to distance itself from Akin's remark on "legitimate rape," it cannot escape the fact that newly minted GOP Vice Presidential contender Paul Ryan co-sponsored a bill along with Akin and 225 other House Republicans that sought to limit federal assistance only to victims of "forcible rape."
Despite the severe moral and legal implications of this limitation, House Republicans - Paul Ryan included - declined to define "forcible rape," a move which led critics of the bill, according to the Boston Globe, to suggest that "[forcible rape] could exclude women who are drugged and raped, mentally handicapped women who are coerced, and victims of statutory rape."
Although the "forcible rape" language was removed from the bill before it passed the House, Paul Ryan signed his name to legislation that sought, in precisely the same manner as Todd Akin's comments this week, to legislate what does and does not qualify as "legitimate rape."
Award-winning playwright and activist Eve Ensler penned the following in her response to Rep. Akin's comments:
You used the expression "legitimate" rape as if to imply there were such a thing as "illegitimate" rape. Let me try to explain to you what that does to the minds, hearts and souls of the millions of women on this planet who experience rape. It is a form of re-rape. The underlying assumption of your statement is that women and their experiences are not to be trusted. That their understanding of rape must be qualified by some higher, wiser authority. It delegitimizes and undermines and belittles the horror, invasion, desecration they experienced. It makes them feel as alone and powerless as they did at the moment of rape.
As if to underscore the GOP's abiding commitment to the delegitimization of women's experiences to which Ms. Ensler refers, CNN has just obtained a draft copy of the Republican Party platform being circulated ahead of the GOP convention in Tampa that calls for a Constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion which currently lacks any exemptions for cases of rape or incest.
This week, Romney and Ryan campaign handlers have sought to further distance the two candidates from the fallout from Akin's comments. According to Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul, and in direct contravention of Paul Ryan's legislative record, "Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape." Governor Romney, for his part, has stated on multiple occasions that abortion should be banned except in cases of incest or rape (unqualified as the the rape's "legitimacy"), but has supported conservative efforts to promote so-called "personhood amendments," which critics insist could potentially outlaw some common forms of birth control and the practice of in vitro fertilization.
Faced with these concerted efforts to limit women's access to essential elements of reproductive health, I am returning again and again to a line from the Eve Ensler quote above: "The underlying assumption...is that women and their experiences are not to be trusted."
And while the GOP's concerted efforts to roll back hard-won reproductive rights will have potentially dire consequences for the health and well-being of all women, they will assuredly impact some populations even more severely than others. As TRL.org contributor Caryn Riswold has noted, abridgment of reproductive rights "disproportionately affects those women and girls who are already the most vulnerable and on the margins of in our communities." These heightened consequences of conservative policy should come as no surprise, as many of the lives touched by such realities exist beyond the GOP's bailiwick, but limitations on women's access to reproductive care places a decidedly asymmetrical burden on women of color and women struggling with economic vulnerability.
Rep. Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" bespeak a glaring level of personal ignorance and misogyny. But despite the scrambling of conservative pundits and politicians, the assumptions about women's bodies and experiences which underpin Akin's comments remain categorically consistent with the views and legislative attempts of of an overwhelming majority of House Republicans, and the presumptive GOP nomimees for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States.
As Democratic strategist David Axelrod observed yesterday, Akin's comments may be "terribly inconvenient" for the Romney/Ryan ticket, "but they are certainly not inconsistent." And as long as Romney, Ryan, and the rest of the GOP leadership continue to promote legislation rooted in a flagrant disregard for women's reproductive rights, all the "bad apple" finger-pointing in the world won't stop Todd Akin and his "legitimate rape" nonsense from falling uncomfortably close to the GOP tree.
Image: "Tuesday, April 5, 2011, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, right, a conservative Republican currently running for the U.S. Senate, listens to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., before a news conference on Ryan’s budget agenda, on Capitol Hill in Washington." Via Bob Cesca's Awesome Blog.