Mr. Akin and the Political Class

In the most vexed and divisive time in our politics, Lincoln sought to make the case for the natural right of black people not to be enslaved.  Whether those black people, delivered from slavery, would be acceptable to white people as fellow citizens and voters, people with whom they would be willing to share power over their lives, was understood to be a separate and more difficult question.  

Lincoln was willing to put that further question aside as he planted the premises of natural right, the premises that would work in their logic eventually to bring citizenship to black people.  But Lincoln had to recognize the powerful feelings that ran against the acceptance of blacks just yet as fellow citizens:

Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, cannot be safely disregarded.

That sober sense of things has come into play again in our politics on the matter of abortion and rape. My brother in “columny” Austin Ruse wrote beautifully on this subject this past week, in the wake of the controversy that flared over Todd Akin, running for the Senate in Missouri. 

Akin has been faulted for being not “ready for prime time” because he had not prepared himself for that question of “abortion and rape” that the media are certain to throw at any pro-life candidate. The trick has been to deflect that question.  And yet most of the pro-life commentators faulting Akin have not exactly offered examples of the response that would explain matters – or even turn the tables on the questioners.

The pro-life response begins with the point that any accommodation on this matter of rape is a “prudential” accommodation.  It is something we may have to accept, though we can never endorse it in principle.  We cite Lincoln’s observation on a passion or feeling so pronounced that it cannot be disregarded. 

In this case, it is the passion for killing the innocent issue of the rape.  But that will not be enough for the interviewers; they will press us to concede the deep rightfulness of the abortion in these cases.

“Do you not understand,” we would ask, “that our position is predicated at every point on that undeniable innocence of that child in the womb? Now, do you have any reason that would cause us to revise that judgment? Do you regard the child as sharing, somehow, the guilt of the rape?”

And of course we would add, “Do you yourself favor bringing back capital punishment for the rapist himself?  If not, why would you choose to visit a lethal act on the innocent issue of the rape?”

         Todd Akin: akwardly seeking a moral argument

The prudential argument for making the accommodation with abortion in rape has been supported by the fact that conceptions in rape have been estimated in the past to account for about ½ of one percent, or by some accounts, 2 percent of the abortions in this country.  

And so, as Howard Kainz pointed out in a comment to Austins column, the argument has been that we should not forgo passing a measure that would bar the vast majority of abortions – or bar the funding of those abortions – just because we couldn’t get support for barring abortion even in those hardest cases.  

We have also had grounds to hope that, once the pro-life premises are planted, we might create the climate of understanding in which the woman impregnated in rape could find an enveloping structure of support and understanding: a structure in which she would be treated as a hero for her act of generosity in sustaining the life of that unwelcomed child.

Mr. Akin’s comments about the rarity of conceptions in rape, awkward as they were, fitted into this scheme of reasoning. He drew upon the reports and musings of doctors that I had drawn upon myself years ago, to the effect that the trauma of rape might make it harder to conceive. 

Interesting.  But these speculations had nothing to do with the central moral arguments on the matter. They worked mainly to offer assurances to the pro-lifers that, in biting their lips and accepting abortions in rape, they were accepting what was likely to be only a minuscule portion of the abortions performed in this country.

One of our readers, Sue, rightly observed that Akin did not mean, by a “legitimate rape,” that certain rapes were legitimate.  He was obviously referring rather to actual rapes, not the sexual encounters that are regretted and referred to later as rapes. 

Mr. Akin was stumbling and artless, but Joe Biden has done far worse things in moral buffoonery, only to see his gaffes laughed off. The fact that Akin’s missteps triggered a panic in the higher echelons of the Republican Party, and even in the circles of conservative commentators, may simply be a sign of a political class that lacks confidence in itself as a political class.    

When Mr. Romney is asked about abortion, as he surely will be, he should point out that his opponent is the only national Democrat who opposed the bill to preserve the life of the child who survives an abortion.  And his administration has done nothing to enforce the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act. 

That is the scandal that deserves to trigger the high moral outrage.  And that is the real story on abortion in this campaign.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.