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Susan GreenfieldBack to OpinionSusan Greenfield

Consent and conception

When Representative Todd Akin said that cases of “legitimate rape” do not result in pregnancy, he was simply articulating a widely-held medical belief.

In second-century Rome that is.

There, the physician Soranus wrote, “If some women who were forced to have intercourse have conceived…the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve.”

As the historian Thomas Laqueur points out in “Making Sex” (recently summarized in the Guardian), from ancient times until well into the 1700’s, medical texts claimed that a woman had to have an orgasm to become pregnant — just as men had to have an orgasm to ejaculate. The assumption infected legal theory for centuries.

Michael Dalton’s seventeenth-century handbook for English justices insists, “If a woman at the time of the supposed Rape do conceive with child by the Ravisher, this is no Rape, for a woman cannot conceive with child, except she does consent.” A century later, Richard Burn’s widely-consulted “Justice of the Peace” repeats the point: “a woman cannot conceive unless she doth consent.”

Granted, the current outcry against Akin’s statement indicates that most twenty-first century Americans understand his comments were not based in fact. Even presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called the comments “offensive” and Akin promptly apologized. Nevertheless, CNN reports that a draft of the GOP platform indicates that the party is still planning to support “a human life amendment’ to the Constitution, which would outlaw abortion without making explicit exemptions for rape or incest.”

Herein lies the real and enduring significance of Akin’s comments: virtually every member of the GOP now admits that a victim of rape can get pregnant and that rape is categorically reprehensible. Akin himself has testified to his “deep empathy…for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” The GOP establishment, however, does not appear to be prepared to admit that a woman has a “legitimate” or legal right to decide what happens to her body.

In this context, it is worth remembering the historical precedent. When the second-century Soranus said that conception proves a woman’s “sexual appetite” was merely “obscured by mental resolve,” he assumed her mental response was less important than her sexual one. The same is true of the early modern legal assumption that “a woman cannot conceive unless she doth consent.” Again, it appears, the pregnant body legally outweighs a woman’s mind. She may think she did not want to have sex — or get pregnant — but her body contradicts this and is granted the legal upper hand.

How different are these examples from Akin’s suggestion that, “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”? As my twenty-one year old daughter Anna told me, there is no ‘thinking woman’ in this statement. Rather, the woman’s body seems to do the only work. If her body really did not want to have sex, she would not have gotten pregnant in the first place. If she is now pregnant, her body must have both wanted to have sex and wanted to conceive, and she is now obligated to remain pregnant.

It seems that as far as the GOP is concerned, once a woman is pregnant, her intellectual experience remains irrelevant. No matter how much the GOP discredits Akin’s incendiary remarks, the party’s platform will likely reiterate this primary point. Eve Ensler notes this in her letter to the Representative: “the underlying assumption of your statement is that women and their experiences are not to be trusted…I am asking you and the GOP to get out of…all of our bodies. These are not your decisions to make.”

Back in eighteenth-century England, when legal texts still suggested that pregnancy disproved rape, Samuel Richardson wrote a long, sensational novel called “Clarissa” (1747-8). In it, the eponymous heroine is raped by her social superior, Robert Lovelace. After the event, Lovelace desperately hopes that Clarissa is pregnant because that, he insinuates, will discredit her rape charges against him. Clarissa refuses to prosecute Lovelace, not because she “wanted it,” but because she knows that the law is unlikely to acknowledge her experience and unlikely to legitimize her “mental resolve.”

Instead, Clarissa takes matters into her own hands. While Lovelace fantasizes endlessly about the baby she will bear him, she simply starves herself to death. Only in this way can she prove that she alone has the intellectual right to determine the fate of her body, pregnant or not.

Let’s pray that American women do not have to resort to these kinds of tactics after the next election.

Susan Celia Greenfield is associate professor of English literature at Fordham University. She is the author of Mothering Daughters and of several scholarly articles and short stories. She is a member of the Op-Ed Project.