David Frum Follows Akin into Idiocy

The breaking news story yesterday was Missouri Republican candidate for US Senate Todd Akin’s discussion of abortion and rape. On “The Jaco Report”, Akin was questioned about his anti-abortion stance and whether there should be an exception made to allow women who had been raped and became pregnant to get an abortion. Akin’s response turned out to be political suicide.

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

Akin’s already gotten quite the backlash over this. The Romney campaign made public its disagreement with Akin’s words. The national Republican party pulled his funding and made clear that his continued candidacy was a liability for other Republicans. And it appears that Akin will be withdrawing his candidacy shortly.

But let’s take a moment to try to establish just what it was that Akin got wrong here, because Akin has a big-name defender and the logic of stance-taking on this topic has been made an issue.

First, pregnancy resulting from rape is not “rare”. It is calculated to occur in about 5% of rape events.

“The national rape-related pregnancy rate is calculated to be 5 percent per rape among females aged 12 to 45 years,” according to the website of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “This would be equivalent to approximately 32,000 pregnancies as a result of rape each year.” The medical organization issued a recommendation last August for all its ob-gyn members to “routinely screen all patients for a history of sexual assault,” especially those who complain about pelvic pain, menstrual irregularities and painful sex.

The expected number of pregnancies from rape is just slightly less than the number of fatalities resulting from automobile accidents in 2010.

The notion that a small enough demographic is a justification for removing a right is reprehensible. And we are not talking about a small demographic. We are talking about a demographic just about the same size as a leading cause of mortality in this country.

Second, it has been pointed out quite often that Akin is simply and completely wrong about a biological mechanism that makes rape different from other forms of sexual activity in terms of its potential to start a pregnancy. There simply is no legitimate basis for Akin’s claim that there is.

Third, there’s the whole “legitimate rape” phrasing. Assuming that Akin did not mean to say that some rape is justified, we are left with the surmise that Akin thinks that there is a subset of acts that other people call rape that meet some stricter standard that Akin would approve of. And there is history there to tell us that this is exactly what Akin was trying to say. Akin co-sponsored a bill last year with then-Representative and now vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to redefine rape, coming up with the term “forcible rape” as the subset of rape that would justify exceptions to a ban on federal funding of abortions.

Federal law prevents federal Medicaid funds and similar programs from paying for abortions. Yet the law also contains an exception for women who are raped. The bill Akin and Ryan cosponsored would have narrowed this exception, providing that only pregnancies arising from “forcible rape” may be terminated. Because the primary target of Akin and Ryan’s effort are Medicaid recipients — patients who are unlikely to be able to afford an abortion absent Medicaid funding — the likely impact of this bill would have been forcing many rape survivors to carry their rapist’s baby to term.

One way to make a small demographic even smaller is to define it away. This is exactly what Akin and Paul Ryan were trying to do.

Fourth, Akin discusses punishment being doled out when rape results in pregnancy. Akin says punishment should go to the rapist, and not the “child”. It is telling that Akin leaves out a party here: the woman. Akin fails to acknowledge that his answer does impose punishment, the punishment of forced pregnancy and labor, with its associated risks of permanent debilitation, injury, and death, on every single woman who in that situation is denied access to an abortion that she wants. That’s up to 32,000 women a year meted out punishment, without appeal or even recognition of any due process right on which to make an appeal. Akin doesn’t even try to sugarcoat this process with offering compensation like that provided to surrogate mothers. This is an unfunded mandate, the costs of which are entirely borne by the victim of rape who becomes pregnant.

Remember how I talked about the demographic figure before, the 32,000 pregnancies expected per year from rape events? Couple that with the reported mortality rate in childbirth in 2008 of 24 in 100,000, and we have an expectation that Akin’s stance of denying access to abortion for pregnant rape victims would amount to a death sentence for about 8 women each year whose only crime was being a rape victim. 114 convicts were sentenced to death in 2010, so if we add in Akin’s new death sentence, we get 8 / (114 + 8) * 100 = 6.6% of new death sentences in the country each year under Akin’s plan for the crime of getting pregnant via rape. Rape victims… really, really dangerous people, apparently. And it should be noted that the sentence would be carried out in a matter of mere months, again with no appeal, and, in fact, no recognition of a due process right to take action upon at all.

I’m going to derive a rough estimate of relative rates of death sentences between homicide and Akin’s abortion restriction plan. Given the USA number of homicides in 2010 (14,474) and death sentences (114), there a missing element: what proportion of death sentences were handed out for homicide. I’m going to simply plug in some numbers to indicate a range of results to bracket things. The expected proportion of death sentences for pregnancy from rape is simple: 8/32000 * 100 = 0.025%. More crimes than homicide can contribute to death sentences, so the proportion there can be as high as 114/14474 * 100 = 0.79%. I wouldn’t expect more than half of the death sentences to come from non-homicide charges, so at the other end of the range we get 57/14474 * 100 = 0.39%. How much more common is a death sentence for “homicide” than “pregnancy via rape”? That will lie in the interval between 0.79 / 0.025 and 0.39 / 0.025, or [31.6 >= x >= 15.7]. If you commit homicide, you are only 16 to 32 times more likely to receive a death sentence than you are as a woman who becomes pregnant via rape. There’s some crime and punishment for you.

I think that lays out the problems in Akin’s reported stance. The first and second points reflect deep ignorance of the topic on Akin’s part. The third and fourth speak to a narrow ideological stance on the topic.

And now we come to Akin’s defender, David Frum. Frum worked for the George W. Bush administration, and has since produced a series of columns that vary wildly in merit. The current one is not one of his better offerings. Frum wrote a column titled, “Akin’s Abortion View: More Widespread in GOP Than You Think”. Now, I have no particular problem believing that a substantial proportion of the membership of the GOP could be deeply ignorant of basic biology and driven by a radical ideology concerning abortion, so I don’t see a problem with Frum’s choice of title. It is the structure of his argument that is a problem.

The word “moron” is being flung very freely at Todd Akin today, and it’s not fair.

Akin, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri, just blew a big hole in his campaign by telling a TV interviewer that in cases of “legitimate rape,” pregnancy hardly ever happens.

Akin was attempting to justify his view that abortion should be banned in nearly all cases. And yes, the use of the phrase “legitimate rape” suggests a certain lack of verbal nimbleness. Yet stupidity is not really the problem here.

Akin’s view of abortion—no exception for rape, incest, and life of the mother—is not his belief alone. It is also the view of Rick Santorum, the second-place finisher in the 2012 Republican nomination contest. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, it became the position of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It is the stance of Ken Connor, former president of the Family Research Council. Plainly, it is the position of a significant faction within the pro-life movement.

Well, “moron” might not be fair in some sense, but “ignoramus” would be perfectly justifiable, as I pointed out above. Stupidity might not be the problem, but essential ignorance really is. Frum’s basic fallacy here is a strawman: nobody I’ve seen was criticizing Akin just on the basis of the radical and rigid ideology he has adopted on abortion. It is Akin’s failed attempt to justify that radical and rigid ideology as having a basis in demographics on the one hand and biology on the other that leads to the conclusion, depending on the source, that Akin is a moron, stupid, or an ignoramus. Frum sets up and knocks down a weak argument that happens not to be one that anybody else was making, and acts as though he has accomplished something by doing so.

But Frum isn’t done yet. Does he get better? Let’s have a look.

And why not? If you believe that a pregnancy becomes a full human person at the very instant of conception, how can any of these exceptions make sense? Follow the hard logic of a strict pro-life position, and Akin’s view is where you end up. If I discover that my next-door neighbor was born of incest, I cannot wander over and shoot him dead. We don’t apply capital punishment even to the rapist; why should his innocent child pay for his crimes with its life? As for life of the mother, Akin explained his view on that issue well: he urged doctors to “optimize” life, ie, sometimes to choose the mother, but sometimes to choose the child when the child’s life seems more optimal.

These views may be shocking, but they are not stupid. With implacable logic, they derive from first principles. If anything, the logic of these views is tighter than the logic that leads the pro-life majority to favor the rape, incest, and life of the mother exceptions.

This is just putting a fancier suit on the strawman. [As pointed out by “ToSeek” in comments, I was hasty reading this part, and misread Frum as comparing anti-abortion and pro-choice stances. So this following bit I’m leaving in for completeness, but the stuff about pro-choice stance is not relevant to Frum’s text: But even here, Frum is wrong. The assertion that pro-choice advocates can’t lay claim to a stance based on logical conclusions from first principles is incorrect. Pro-choice advocates do have a principled stance, that women should be free to determine their own reproductive choices, including abortion. They just don’t happen to live in a society where that can be implemented cleanly. Pro-choice advocates don’t favor “exceptions” to bans on availability of abortion because they think that those “exceptions” are themselves the class of justified cases where abortion should be available; they favor those exceptions to bans on availability of abortion because even hard-core abortion advocates have a tough time coming up with good reasons beyond ideology why abortion should not be available in those cases.] Yes, radical ideology can have a certain purity of logic, but this is not a good argument for its validity. Nor is argumentum ad populum, another offering of Frum’s. The issues have to be worked out in the reality of a pluralistic society. [Added: Again, the point at issue is not how widespread Akin’s views are or whether they have some pristine internal logical consistency, but rather how completely unsupported they are by the very classes of empirical evidence Akin tries to assert as support.]

One more thing… a good chunk of our health care problems come about because of half-measures on the part of the far right. Having staked out the logically rigorous first principle that people are only entitled to the level of health care that they can actually pay for themselves, the exceptions that have become codified raise health care costs all around. Those exceptions include emergency room treatment for indigent patients, because even the far right politicians have a general reluctance to speak aloud their preference that poor people simply go somewhere else to die. That would certainly qualify as “implacable logic”. Will David Frum be pointing out this as a logical inconsistency on the part of the far right politicians? I don’t think so.

Update: Despite various outlets reporting that Akin would withdraw from the race, Akin has released a new ad asking for forgiveness, saying that his words were wrong, but his heart is right. Akin, though, doesn’t seem to get why he has been criticized. His new material doesn’t change anything substantive. He’s still pushing the same radical and rigid ideology as before, but now he’ll just be more careful with how he expresses himself on the topic.

Update 2: Akin is taking things a step further. He says that he meant to say “forcible rape” and that by “legitimate rape” he wanted to distinguish between women who have been forcibly raped and those who claim to have been raped falsely so as to gain the abortion availability exception for rape. I’ll be very disappointed if McCaskill cannot capitalize on this issue and beat Akin in November. The source for Akin and others to say that pregnancy is rare in rape cases is a medical doctor named John C. Willkie. He wrote an article in 1999 laying out his reasons for asserting rarity of pregnancy in rape. Dr. Willkie was openly dismissive of the 5% rate of pregnancy by rape figure, though the page showing his essay also has a link to a medical research paper that used an actual sample to measure that rate.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

5 thoughts on “David Frum Follows Akin into Idiocy

  • 2012/08/21 at 6:39 am

    “Radical ideology can have a certain purity of logic, but this is not a good argument for its validity.”

    Very good line – applies to lots of issues.

  • 2012/08/21 at 8:00 am

    “Those exceptions include emergency room treatment for indigent patients, because even the far right politicians have a general reluctance to speak aloud their preference that poor people simply go somewhere else to die. That would certainly qualify as “implacable logic”. ”

    Excellent ending of a terrific column unpacking the folly in their logic. Awww, Wes, I miss you.

  • 2012/08/21 at 9:53 am

    Lauri, hey, we miss you, too! Plan a Florida vacation sometime and we’ll catch up.

  • 2012/08/21 at 2:02 pm

    “The assertion that pro-choice advocates can’t lay claim to a stance based on logical conclusions from first principles is incorrect.”

    But he’s not talking about pro-choice advocates – in fact, he doesn’t seem to address them at all. What he says is, “If anything, the logic of these views is tighter than the logic that leads the pro-life majority to favor the rape, incest, and life of the mother exceptions. ”

    He’s saying that the people who are generally anti-abortion but who make the aforementioned exceptions don’t have logical grounds for doing so.

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