Akin and Ryan: Ignorance and Inconsistency

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 2:10 AM By Brian Niemeier , In , , , , , , ,

In an August 19th TV interview, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said, "First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [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."

Responding to this statement, several commentators including members of Akin's own party have asked him to resign from his senate race against incumbent Claire McCaskill.

Last week, vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan remarked, "I've always adopted the idea; the position, that the method of conception doesn't change the definition of life."

Some are now suggesting that Ryan should be removed from Romney's ticket for making that comment.

These two events have now overlapped to create a situation wherein two prominent elected officials are being pressured to resign their candidacies: one for downplaying pregnancy as a consequence of rape and the other for acknowledging that conception can result from rape.

Let's analyze the reasoning at work here. In the first place, Akin is being denounced for sounding, "ignorant", "stupid", and "boneheaded". Meanwhile, Ryan's remarks are called "nauseating" and "far more offensive...than Akin's..."

Akin's statement is conclusively disproven by statistical data. It likely results from an exaggeration of studies showing that long-term stress can reduce women's fertility. Though extremely traumatic, the stress caused by rape is insufficient to block conception. Dr. Sharon Phelan, a fellow at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has pointed out that rape may carry a lower risk of pregnancy due to the fact that perpetrators ejaculate less often during rape than do men engaged in consensual sex. However, Akin's claim focused exclusively on the victim, so Phelan's caveat does little to legitimize his point.

Based on the fact that his comments were erroneous, Akin is certainly guilty of rashness, imprudence, and ignorance. Asserting that he spoke out of malice is more difficult to prove. Accusing him of intentionally insulting rape victims is uncharitable considering the context of his statement and his subsequent apology. Similar accusations of misogyny based on inferences that Akin meant to blame rape victims for the horrible crime committed against them presume impossible knowledge of the congressman's interior thoughts and motives.

Akin's statement was tactless and ill-informed. Due to the degree of scandal that could (and did) result from his position, he should have known better.

Having established that Akin's comment was blameworthy, how does Ryan's compare? Akin said that the incidence of pregnancy is reduced in the case of rape, which has been empirically disproven. Ryan's statement falls into a different category entirely. He asserts his support for an ethical principle, e.g. that the value of human life isn't dependent upon the circumstances of any one life's origin.

It's important to distinguish between what Ryan actually said and the way that his words have been interpreted by some. For example, the video in the link above is titled, "Paul Ryan: Rape Is Just another 'Method of Conception'". This title is a dishonest skewing of Ryan's actual statement which adds qualifiers that he didn't use. It is in fact a red herring that deflects attention from Ryan's point to a manufactured response to it.

Further comparison of Akin's position to Ryan's shows that, while the former's statement is empirically false, Ryan's claim involves a moral value that can be logically defended and is held by a great number of people. Therefore, Ryan can't be accused of ignorance in the same regard as Akin. His critics seem to acknowledge this fact, instead calling his remarks insensitive and offensive. Far more than in Akin's case, the accusations lodged against Ryan seem to arise from his critics' uncharitable twisting of his words and intent.

As the experts who debunked Akin's claims attest, rape is, sadly, a cause of conception. This fact was a premise of Ryan's position; not the conclusion. He himself made no mention of rape, but alluded to it indirectly. He also attached no derogatory or dismissive terms to the crime of rape or to rape victims. Calling his words "nauseating" and "offensive" doesn't do justice to his point and serves to discourage further discussion on the value of human life.

A far more valid objection to Ryan's statement has been overlooked by his opponents: namely, the inconsistency between his stated values and his policies. In the interview, Ryan claims to uphold the universal value of human life regardless of how that life came into being. He then declares his tacit support for abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Ryan did make a statement that is more odious than Congressman Akin's; just not the one he's being criticized for. Claiming to hold a standard which he then immediately contradicts is brazen hypocrisy. Defending his lack of integrity by appealing to his running mate's position doesn't reconcile his conflicting views, it only reveals his motive. Likewise, resorting to the argument that Romney's exceptions for rape and incest are preferable to abortion on demand doesn't shore up his position either, since it's actually an argument against the universal value of human life (i.e. preventing the trauma of carrying a child conceived through rape to term outweighs the child's value).

What we're left with are Akin's claim--ignorant, crass, and rash as it was--set against Ryan's logically viable yet immediately compromised stand on the value of human life. Seen in this light, Ryan is either incredibly self-deluded, which is a dangerous quality in an elected official, or purposefully disingenuous, which is even worse.

Inconsistency is Ryan's major fault on this issue, and his critics should strive to avoid their own conflicting charges against his and Akin's remarks. Rape can either lead to pregnancy or not, and it's blatantly unfair to demonize one person for holding the former view and another for holding the latter. The omission of Ryan's obvious hypocrisy among his critics tends to show that his opponents are more interested in bullying him into silence than engaging in honest debate.

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