EDITORIALS

A legitimate rape?

Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin, R-Missouri, waves to the crowd while introduced at a senate candidate forum during a Republican conference in Kansas City, Mo. in February 2012. The two losing candidates in the Republican primary for Missouri's U.S. Senate seat are getting renewed attention after Akin's comments about rape on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012.
Orlin Wagner | AP
Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin, R-Missouri, waves to the crowd while introduced at a senate candidate forum during a Republican conference in Kansas City, Mo. in February 2012. The two losing candidates in the Republican primary for Missouri's U.S. Senate seat are getting renewed attention after Akin's comments about rape on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012.
Posted Aug. 20, 2012, at 3:40 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, has unintentionally strengthened the argument for comprehensive sex education in public schools.

When a television interviewer asked the candidate Sunday why he supports a ban on abortion even in cases of rape, Akin replied, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Apart from failing to identify what constitutes “legitimate rape,” Akin’s statement shows a remarkable lack of understanding about human biology. It contradicts scientific data and demonstrates the need for health education that includes frank, medically accurate information about sexuality.

A University of South Carolina study published in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology calculated a national rape-related pregnancy rate of 5 percent among women between 12 and 45 years old. Based on a three-year study involving 4,008 women, researchers estimated that more than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year in the United States.

“Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency,” the study’s authors concluded. “It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence.” A later study by St. Lawrence University researchers yielded similar results.

Politicians frequently misinterpret data to suit their ideological needs. However, biology isn’t as open to interpretation. Akin’s statement about the female body’s ability to “shut down” the reproductive system in cases of rape defies medical evidence and ought not be dismissed as throw-away campaign rhetoric.

We suggest he enroll in a remedial class in health education, similar to those taught in public middle schools and high schools throughout Maine. Instead of conjecture based on folklore or something less scientific, Akin would receive honest information about human sexuality based on medical evidence.

That’s important, not just because political office seekers shouldn’t use false science to court voters, but because clear, factual discourse about sexuality should inform public policy. When debating laws related to, for instance, rape or abortion, voters and those who aspire to govern them can’t make judgments or apply values without a basic understanding of the physical and psychological effects of sexual assault.

Providing accurate information about the biology of reproduction represents one of the best ways to reduce sexual assault, and Akin’s attempt to categorize sexual assault into anything more than it is, a violent crime, threatens to minimize public understanding of the issue and dehumanize sexual assault survivors.

Akin’s display of ignorance about the subject reinforces the need for the type of sex education instruction that will truly break down the “culture of silence” that exists around sexual assault. Maine schools must continue to emphasize science-based sex education, including the difficult topic of assault.

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