Representative and candidate for Senator Todd Akin recently made a truly ridiculous comment about the frequency of pregnancy due to rape, which has caused a flurry of discussion regarding Republican nominee for President Mitt Romney’s position on abortion.
Akin, who has long-expressed opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, was seemingly attempting to respond to an obvious argument against his views on abortion. This comment has become important to the presidential election, in turn, because Akin has a standing association with vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan.
There are two components of Akin’s comment that are worth prying apart. First, we should think about whether his main claim is accurate. Biologically speaking, there’s no reason to think Akin is correct here. To put the point simply, there’s nothing about rape that makes it less likely to lead to pregnancy. Thus, even if the frequency of pregnancy in cases of rape is lower than the frequency of pregnancy in cases of consensual sex, as a matter of fact, there’s no reason to think this statistical trend will persist.
Akin’s comment to the contrary, not surprisingly, has led many people to voice strong opposition to Akin’s continued candidacy for Senate. Some have gone so far as to demand that he withdraw from the race, on the grounds that his comments indicate a morally objectionable perspective about women or a deeply flawed character.
While his comments are clearly wrong-headed, it’s not obvious that they are indicative of some sort of deep moral failing. Was Akin’s statement ill-informed, to the point of near-illiteracy about science? Absolutely. But does that make him a terrible person? Not necessarily.
It seems legitimate to deride him for being a dimwit here, but we need more evidence for the claim that this comment was born out of some morally objectionable views about women and rape. Akin may be a dummy, but that doesn’t make him a bad person.
Now to the second aspect of Akin’s comment where there is confusion occurring in the media coverage. Because Akin has partnered with vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan on various anti-abortion projects, there is some concern that the official Romney-Ryan position on abortion in cases of rape is disingenuous.
To again put the point simply, it’s politically very convenient that Ryan is suddenly on board with allowing abortions in cases of rape, after being long-opposed to that very view as evidenced by his teaming with Akin.
In order to better assess the relevance of the Akin-Ryan connection, it’s worth thinking a bit more about whether Ryan is actually being inconsistent here.
We might first consider the distinction between one’s personal ethics and one’s positions about policy. It may be that Ryan is personally opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape, but that he does not regard prohibiting abortions in such cases as the best policy. There is nothing inconsistent about disapproval at the personal level combined with acceptance at the level of policy-making.
Alternatively, we might wonder whether Ryan’s promotion to potential vice-president has moved him to adopt a national perspective, rather than the more narrow view that his previous positions have allowed for. It’s perfectly reasonable to think that one’s localized attitudes about some behavior should be sensitive to changes in one’s potential constituency. Ryan may have simply adopted a position that better represents the views of the nation as a whole, in accordance with his new role as a representative of the entire nation’s interests.
Whether either of these descriptions capture Ryan’s view remains to be seen. The point, however, is that there need not be an inconsistency here, and to accuse the Romney-Ryan campaign as such should be based on evidence that Ryan is being disingenuous at the level of national policy-making. A conflict between one’s personal values or local policy positions and one’s national policy recommendations is not necessarily inconsistent, because it involves different viewpoints that can reasonably be in conflict.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.