Akin in Context: Medieval Medicine

UNITED STATES – MARCH 21: Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., speaks during a news conference on the new Health and Human Services Departm
UNITED STATES – MARCH 21: Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., speaks during a news conference on the new Health and Human Services Department abortion rule on Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A War on women? Whoa, let's take a step back and evaluate Todd Akin's remarks before we jump to any crazy conclusions. It's only right that we establish the proper historical context for his position that "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Akin is totally supported by medieval law and medicine. The 13th century English jurisprudential text, Fleta, provides all the authority on the subject that we need, decreeing that if a "woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive." It was generally known that a woman becomes pregnant when and only when she reaches orgasm. Thus, rape resulting in pregnancy was no rape at all because she enjoyed it. Obviously.

And it's not only medieval Britons in Mr. Akin's corner. He's been taking a lot of flack for citing "doctors" as his source of information, but he certainly does have medical authority to rely on: Dr. Samuel Farr, English physician who published the Elements of Medical Jurisprudence in 1788. According to Dr. Farr, "without an excitation of lust, the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place. So that if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated, it is not likely she would become pregnant." Of course, it might also be assumed that for Akin, rape, in any case, is pretty much impossible because, according to Dr. Farr, "a woman always possesses sufficient power, by drawing back her limbs, and by the force of her hands, to prevent the insertion of the penis into her body."

That medical treatise that gives authority to Mr. Akin's controversial statement is such a well-researched work that it even provides details on how to determine from physical evidence whether a woman has, in fact, been raped. The first and most important order of business: determine whether she was a virgin because a sexually experienced woman is not to be trusted. A physician might go about this determination by considering whether "the lips of the pudendum are flaccid and distended more than in a maiden" or whether "the vagina is enlarged and spacious." Stretched vagina? Check. No rape. Baby must be born.

To be fair to Mr. Akin, we can't just assume that he would dig up one piece of outdated medical jurisprudence to suit his own political agenda. His remarks make a lot more sense if contextualized within the 18th century ethos exemplified by Dr. Farr's text. As such, according to Mr. Farr, a man's wife might divorce him if his penis is too thick, or too short, or when his "semen cannot be thrown out with sufficient force," for these are indications of absolute impotence. Likewise, if she is sterile because her vagina is too straight and narrow, she is definitely divorcible. However, if his penis is too long or if her clitoris is too big there's no getting out of that marriage because in all likelihood the situation is resolvable. In Akin's case, it's a moot point anyway, they have six kids.

Justly placed in the proper context, Todd Akin certainly cannot be criticized for ignorantly announcing a bunch of misogynistic hodgepodge on the radio. This was not just an isolated regurgitation of uninformed rhetoric. No, Akin's pronouncement was absolutely informed. He is informed by a discredited and dangerous tradition of appropriating a woman's choice by suggesting that she asked for it, and he is not alone. Mitt Romney was quick to distance himself from Todd Akin, a misleading move to say the least. Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, is a man who co-sponsored legislation that would differentiate between "rape" and "forcible rape." Non-forcible rape? Like when a rape results in pregnancy?

Perhaps most importantly, in recognizing that Todd Akin is not a lone wolf, that his comments were not some sort of extreme aberration, it becomes more difficult for his fellow conservative politicians to pretend that they are different. These are elected officials with -- quite literally -- medieval mindsets, sharing opinions that reflect a systemic crisis for human rights. If we really put Akin's remarks in context, we can see the depth of their meaning and the terrifying implications for women in the 21st century.