Indiana is weird.
If you haven’t heard yet, it’s time you did: yesterday afternoon, U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin said in a televised interview that women rarely get pregnant following instances of “legitimate rape,” because the female body has ways to “shut that whole thing down.”
Akin is wrong. He is wrong on many levels, but most importantly he’s wrong about basic medical facts governing how the female body works. So let’s take a step back and examine Akin’s statement from a scientific angle, with the help of some relevant, peer-reviewed publications.
First things first. Here’s the actual quote that, yesterday afternoon, incited the ire and incredulity of just about anyone with a brain, a pulse, and the misfortune of hearing or reading it. Akin’s assertion comes in response to a question about whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape (a video of the exchange is also featured up top):
It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
Go ahead and read that again. Replay the video if you have to. Try to absorb every iota of what Akin is saying. For the record: your mind should be reeling. Did Akin really just assert that some cases of rape are more “legitimate” than others, WHILE arguing that a woman can depend on her body to stave off pregnancy when her efforts to prevent a man from forcing himself upon her fail? In the same breath? All under the banner of medical and scientific evidence? Did that really just happen?
Yeah. Yeah, it did.
Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that rape is rape, and that modifiers like “legitimate” and “forcible” (another term Akin has paired with “rape” in the past) are so fraught with ignorance and dishonesty as to warrant their own well-reasoned, thoroughly researched analyses elsewhere. (Here are three such articles, by The Guardian, Jezebel and New Statesman, to get you started.) For now, let’s just focus on the “medical” claim he’s making.
Rape-Related Pregnancy By The Numbers
Let’s look at the science. After all, Representative Akin (who is a sitting congressman in Missouri, and will run against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill for a seat in the U.S. Senate in this year’s election cycle) is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; if anyone in Washington is qualified to speak to the medical and scientific evidence surrounding abortion, rape, and pregnancy, surely it is a member of the House Committee on Science. Right?
Evidently not. “It seems to me,” opines Akin, “from what I understand from doctors, that [pregnancy from rape] is really rare.” We may never know whether the doctors Akin is referring to even exist (outside of the congressman’s ill-advised attempt to legitimize his baseless argument), but a 3-year longitudinal study involving over 4,000 adult American women stands in staunch opposition to their spurious claims. The entire article, which is published in a 1996 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology is relevant to our analysis, but here’s the bit that Akin and his doctors really need to read:
Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency. It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence. As we address the epidemic of unintended pregnancies in the United States, greater attention and effort should be aimed at preventing and identifying unwanted pregnancies that result from sexual victimization.
If you’re looking for hard numbers, the study concludes that the national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age (12—45), and that an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. Does 32,000 pregnancies per annum sound “rare” to you? It’s not.
Five percent may not sound like much, but the fact is that couples trying to have kids would be ecstatic over a five percent chance of pregnancy per sexual encounter; what’s more, a study published in 2003 in the journal Human Nature found that a single act of rape was more than twice as likely to result in pregnancy than an act of consensual sex:
“Our analysis suggests that per-incident rape-pregnancy rates exceed per-incident consensual pregnancy rates by a sizable margin,” write researchers Jon and Tiffani Gottschall, “even before adjusting for the use of relevant forms of birth control.” [emphasis mine]
Again, here are the numbers: the researchers examined data collected from 405 women between the ages of 12 and 45 who had suffered a single incidence of penile-vaginal rape, and found that 6.4 percent of these women became pregnant. This number leapt to almost 8% when the researchers accounted for women who’d been using birth control (according to New Scientist, US government statistics show that 20% of the women in the sample were likely to have been using the pill or an IUD). A separate study, conducted by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2001, found the per-incidence pregnancy rate for a single act of consensual sex to be just 3.1 percent.
In light of these studies and statistics, it’s almost not even worth addressing Akin’s assertion that the female body has ways to “shut that whole thing [i.e. pregnancy] down” in cases of “legitimate rape”; but what the congressman seems to be referring to is post-copulatory sexual selection, a real technique used by some female animals to actively control which males will father their offspring. For example, as this episode of Isabella Rossellini’s award-winning Green Porno series explains, the labyrinthine vaginal canals of female ducks allow them to hide their eggs from undesirable males. The ability to store and select sperm from multiple potential mates (a form of post-copulatory sexual selection thought to have evolved in response to the risk of unsolicited sexual encounters, and ironically named “female choice”) has also been observed in reptiles, spiders and insects.
But humans don’t have labyrinthine vaginal canals. They also don’t actively store and select sperm from multiple males inside their bodies. And if there are any hormonal responses at play in a post-copulatory sexual response — as is hypothesized to occur in some species of monkeys — the studies we referenced earlier clearly demonstrate that they certainly aren’t powerful enough to warrant calling pregnancy among rape victims “rare.”
Congressman Akin has since backed away from his remark, saying that he “misspoke” during the interview, though he has still failed to mention which point (or points) he’s referring to.
“In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks,” Akin said in a statement released yesterday afternoon, “it’s clear that I 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.”
This is a half-assed explanation, and a sorry excuse for an apology (if you can even call it that). Perhaps more shocking is that Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. In that role, he should be required to address the spurious nature of his comments by responding to the hard, scientific evidence that he was not simply wrong, but basing his understanding of reproduction on opinion rather than medical facts.
Installation at the National Portrait Gallery (by Tom Bluett)
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values… it requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason.
Now, I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice I cannot simply point to the the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."
RIP Troy Davis
By CHARLES M. BLOW
Since it’s back-to-school season across the country, I wanted to celebrate a group that is often maligned: teachers. Like so many others, it was a teacher who changed the direction of my life, and to whom I’m forever indebted.
A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll released this week found that 76 percent of Americans believed that high-achieving high school students should later be recruited to become teachers, and 67 percent of respondents said that they would like to have a child of their own take up teaching in the public schools as a career.
But how do we expect to entice the best and brightest to become teachers when we keep tearing the profession down? We take the people who so desperately want to make a difference that they enter a field where they know that they’ll be overworked and underpaid, and we scapegoat them as the cause of a societywide failure.
A March report by the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that one of the differences between the United States and countries with high-performing school systems was: “The teaching profession in the U.S. does not have the same high status as it once did, nor does it compare with the status teachers enjoy in the world’s best-performing economies.”
The report highlights two examples of this diminished status:
• “According to a 2005 National Education Association report, nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years teaching; they cite poor working conditions and low pay as the chief reason.”
• “High school teachers in the U.S. work longer hours (approximately 50 hours, according to the N.E.A.), and yet the U.S. devotes a far lower proportion than the average O.E.C.D. country does to teacher salaries.”
Take Wisconsin, for instance, where a new law stripped teachers of collective bargaining rights and forced them to pay more for benefits. According to documents obtained by The Associated Press, “about twice as many public schoolteachers decided to hang it up in the first half of this year as in each of the past two full years.”
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to reform our education system. We should, and we must. Nor am I saying that all teachers are great teachers. They aren’t. But let’s be honest: No profession is full of peak performers. At least this one is infused with nobility.
And we as parents, and as a society at large, must also acknowledge our shortcomings and the enormous hurdles that teachers must often clear to reach a child. Teachers may be the biggest in-school factor, but there are many out-of-school factors that weigh heavily on performance, like growing child poverty, hunger, homelessness, home and neighborhood instability, adult role-modeling and parental pressure and expectations.
The first teacher to clear those hurdles in my life was Mrs. Thomas.
From the first through third grades, I went to school in a neighboring town because it was the school where my mother got her first teaching job. I was not a great student. I was slipping in and out of depression from a tumultuous family life that included the recent divorce of my parents. I began to grow invisible. My teachers didn’t seem to see me nor I them. (To this day, I can’t remember any of their names.)
My work began to suffer so much that I was temporarily placed in the “slow” class. No one even talked to me about it. They just sent a note. I didn’t believe that I was slow, but I began to live down to their expectations.
When I entered the fourth grade, my mother got a teaching job in our hometown and I came back to my hometown school. I was placed in Mrs. Thomas’s class.
There I was, a little nothing of a boy, lost and slumped, flickering in and out of being.
She was a pint-sized firecracker of a woman, with short curly hair, big round glasses set wider than her face, and a thin slit of a mouth that she kept well-lined with red lipstick.
On the first day of class, she gave us a math quiz. Maybe it was the nervousness of being the “new kid,” but I quickly jotted down the answers and turned in the test — first.
“Whoa! That was quick. Blow, we’re going to call you Speedy Gonzales.” She said it with a broad approving smile, and the kind of eyes that warmed you on the inside.
She put her arm around me and pulled me close while she graded my paper with the other hand. I got a couple wrong, but most of them right.
I couldn’t remember a teacher ever smiling with approval, or putting their hand around me, or praising my performance in any way.
It was the first time that I felt a teacher cared about me, saw me or believed in me. It lit a fire in me. I never got a bad grade again. I figured that Mrs. Thomas would always be able to see me if I always shined. I always wanted to make her as proud of me as she seemed to be that day. And, she always was.
In high school, the district sent a man to test our I.Q.’s. Turns out that not only was I not slow, but mine and another boy’s I.Q. were high enough that they created a gifted-and-talented class just for the two of us with our own teacher who came to our school once a week. I went on to graduate as the valedictorian of my class.
And all of that was because of Mrs. Thomas, the firecracker of a teacher who first saw me and smiled with the smile that warmed me on the inside.
So to all of the Mrs. Thomases out there, all the teachers struggling to reach lost children like I was once, I just want to say thank you. You deserve our admiration, not our contempt.
While most of the country was riveted by the verdict in the Casey Anthony case — invoking the O.J. trial and decrying what many regarded as an unjust verdict — the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit criminal-defense and civil rights law and advocacy firm, released yet another in a series of reports that clearly demonstrate that the criminal-justice system, especially in the South, is broken and dangerously on the brink of illegitimacy.
The EJI’s latest report (pdf) focuses on a little-known practice, permitted in only three states: judicial override. Florida, Delaware and Alabama allow judges to overturn jury-sentencing verdicts in death penalty cases. There are no individuals on death row in Delaware as a result of judicial override, and no judge has imposed a capital punishment override in Florida in the last 12 years. But according to the EJI report, judicial override in Alabama is almost always exercised to impose the death penalty when a jury has recommended life in prison. In fact, although judges have the authority under Alabama law to override a jury’s sentence of death and to instead impose a life sentence, 92 percent of judicial overrides are used to order death.
According to EJI estimates, there are 40 men on death row in Alabama who were placed there after a judge overrode a jury’s sentence of life in prison. Given that Alabama imposes few obstacles to the imposition of the death penalty by juries (a death sentence does not require a unanimous verdict in Alabama — the agreement of 10 of 12 jurors is sufficient), and that jurors opposed to capital punishment are excluded from serving on Alabama juries, judicial overrides to impose death are particularly alarming. But these judicial overrides have not provoked charges of “activist judging,” confirming that the charge of judicial activism has simply become right-wing shorthand to describe a judge whose independence gets in the way of the conservative agenda.
Among the most disturbing but unsurprising findings in the report are that the judicial override in Alabama is almost always imposed when a jury has given a defendant life in prison for the murder of a white victim. According to the report, in Alabama 75 percent of death overrides involve a white victim, even though only 35 percent of homicide victims in Alabama are white. This coincides with long-standing studies that demonstrate the death penalty is imposed most often when the victim of the homicide is white.
Yet another devastating revelation is the evidence that judges override juries to impose the death penalty more often in a judicial election year. If one plus one still equals two, this is among the most searing indictments of judicial elections (still used in 38 states). It suggests that in some instances, judges, feeling the pressure of upcoming election contests, may either consciously or unconsciously make decisions that will shore up their “tough on crime” bonafides.
It is perhaps no coincidence that in Delaware — where judges are appointed — there are no convicts on death row as a result of judicial override. A decade-old study of Pennsylvania judges suggests that there is a positive correlation between harsher sentences imposed by judges against criminal defendants and the proximity of an upcoming judicial election.
The existence of such a correlation in the imposition of the ultimate sentence — death — is a devastating indictment of judicial elections. In fact, if judges are condemning convicts to death and overriding the judgment of the jury to improve their chances for re-election, we are looking at a system that can no longer rightly use the word “justice” to describe itself.
To understand the toxic brew of race, the death penalty and judicial elections, one need only read the words of one judge cited in the report, who substituted a death sentence over the jury’s recommendation of life in prison on a white defendant because if he didn’t impose the death-sentence override, the judge said, “I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people.”
The EJI report is particularly disturbing when read as a companion to the report the organization issued last year that showed the consistent exclusion of blacks from Southern juries in criminal cases. In that report, Alabama once again held a place of special distinction.
Judges ignoring juries to impose death sentences on defendants who kill white victims? Blacks excluded from serving on Southern juries? The charges are lurid and retro but well-documented and devastating. They suggest — along with the now well-known cases of prosecutors framing black criminal defendants for murders they did not commit and withholding exculpatory information from defense counsel, the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, racially disparate stop-and-frisk police practices and unconstitutional conditions of confinement in our nation’s prisons — that our criminal-justice system is in real trouble.
Where are the congressional hearings on the findings unearthed in these reports and cases? Where is the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which was specifically empowered to “study and collect information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of laws under the Constitution because of race, color … or in the administration of justice,” and to engage in the kind of long-term fact gathering that this very serious problem requires?
Without further delay, we need a federal inquiry into the findings of the EJI report. But we also need a broader, more comprehensive examination of our criminal-justice system and the persistent and pernicious role that race continues to play in how justice is meted out, from encounters with the police to conviction and sentencing.
Whether the inquiry comes from Congress or the Commission on Civil Rights, or even from the Department of Justice, something must be done at the federal level. The U.S. can no longer turn a blind eye toward an uncomfortable but painfully obvious truth: that the legitimacy of our justice system is in deep peril. Outrage about the Casey Anthony verdict would be better directed toward addressing the widespread injustices in our criminal-justice system that have been amply documented by EJI and others, rather than a myopic focus on one admittedly disturbing case served up by television networks for our entertainment.
— Ben Adler