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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.


  • Anne Fernald

    The loss of the thinking woman in this equation is by far the most chilling of your observations. Given how far we’ve come, it’s stunning how passionately some still want to confine us to (and separate us from) our bodies.

  • Greenfield

    Yes.  It is chilling.  My twenty-one year old daughter pointed that out to me–and she is precisely of the generation of women who have the most to lose if these policies go forth.  Richardson’s Clarissa is also a young woman (of course).

  • Prospector

    Is it a valid assumption that the majority of women believe as you do?

  • Greenfield

    Interesting question. Why do you ask?

  • Greenfield

    Interesting question. Why do you ask?

  • Greenfield

    Interesting question. Why do you ask?

  • Oldpinky

    Women have the right to decide what is to happen to their life, their body, and their pregnancy.  If a women does not have this right — on what basis does a man, a legislature or a government base their right?  We do not live in a theocracy.  We are not ruled by the Catholic Church or a group of individuals that have a theory by which they direct their lives. We do not live in a society where Governments and institutions dictate the choices we make in this regard. If that were the case, then Government could tell us we had to have an abortion at any we did not want one.  We could be told we could not have a female child (like in China) because that child doe snot have the same value as a boy.  We could be told to abort a fetus because we would only be allowed one child by the Government (like in China).  I opted not to have an abortion.  I had the right to that choice.  I received good medical care and I have a wonderful son.  The only pressure for me to surrender my child was from BirthRight (Catholic organization) who had no knowledge of me as a person.  My strong protector and advocate for my health and that of my baby was my physician. My right to have my child was protected by the same law as the women that did not make this choice.

  • 2nd Lady

    Woman 101

    Why are we even talking about this in the 21 century. We should understand biology by now. These are issues for women, not men, yet men still try to control women from the inside out.

  • Prospector

    Constitutional basis — equal protection
    Theory — constitutional democracy

  • Prospector

    Gallup polling since the 1970s shows that a strong majority of those polled have moral objections to abortion and that roughly, an equal number of Americans believe in (or don’t believe in) abortion under any circumstance. Therefore, how is it that you would believe that your position is the position of American women? Isn’t it more true that your position is that of only some American women? Your indictment of Republicans, at large, is also an indictment of women who are Republicans and of women who don’t believe as you do. Do they get a voice in this matter?

  • GodsHonestTruth

    I love the fact that, in the abortion debate, men’s role in impregation is completely ignored. If Right to Lifers REALLY think a fully human person exists at the moment of conception, they would lobby to also criminalize men who fail to have sex responsibly. But, no. Women are COMPLETELY responsible for everybody’s sexuality, theirs and men’s, since we all know, after all, boys will be boys, they can’t help it. So it’s up to women to say No. And even when they say No, they don’t really mean it. Whereas we all know men always say Yes and there’s no problem with that…

  • GodsHonestTruth

    It depends on the how the question is phrased by the poll. Most Americans are actually both pro-life and pro-choice - yes, they have strong moral objections to abortion. At they same time they do think it should be legal, at least in the early stages of pregnancy. Particuarly in cases of incest and rape, abortion is seen as a necessary evil. Interestingly, America polls slightly over 50% for Pro-Life when a Dem is in office; and slightly over 50% for Pro-Choice when a Republican is president. It’s the shrill absolutist voices – e.g. Abortion Is Always Wrong crowd and Abortion At Any Stage crowd – that form the minority in the US. 

  • Pheatoklee

    I couldn’t agree more!

  • Ellie Amel

    Susan – very touching, particularly the part about starving to death to maintain some kind of control – not unrelated to our modern version, known as anorexia.  Thanks for sharing.  Love Ellie

  • cadler9037

    Loved your article, right from the start with the “widely-held medical belief” –in the 2nd century, that is! 

  • Anonymous

    Like your discussion, with one exception: in my understanding, the law in China only says that each family may have only one child and any subsequent pregnancy after the first child is born must be terminated; it is the “traditional” (across all societies that I know of) human desire to have a male child and the ability to determine the sex of a fetus that leads families to abort female pregnancies until a male is conceived. Then the Chinese law requires the abortion of subsequent pregnancies. So there is no LAW in China dictating abortion by gender; in fact, I believe abortion for gender reasons is illegal, though rarely enforced.

    All this is a horrible policy from an “expedient” solution for the Chinese government’s perception of an other horrible problem. What the Chinese government faced: the demographics of population explosion that would otherwise be a huge barrier to economic growth and the inability of the future Chinese to lead a better life.

    Note that the whole world faces this “population bomb” problem which drives the need for cheap energy from fossil fuels in ever-larger amounts which leads to the emission of CO2 which will threaten the future of all humans as the climate is changed to one that is unlikely to support food production in quantities necessary for the growing population. Many more living people will die more horrible deaths from starvation, war and pestilence than any conceivable number of abortions, at least if affordable, effective contraception is made available.

    The result in China of the “One-Child” policy is a cohort population from the period of this policy with 70 million more males than females. This tends to result in single males for life who are not “domesticated” by marriage so they form large groups where aggressive behavior has less controls. This is not good for a civil society. The Chinese leaders knew that this could be a problem but they saw that over-population would be even worse, so they adopted what they knew would not be a “well-received” policy because they felt that otherwise people would suffer even more. It seems it is an example of the consequences of not dealing with a problem early enough, though for this problem there probably was no previous time when it could have been anticipated and measures taken.

    Conclusion: China’s One-Child policy is a truly ugly solution to an ugly problem for which there are no non-ugly solutions.

  • freedom

    what is your prob health depts give out birth control for free everyday, go get it or give the next 18 yrs to someone who didnt ask to be born , women today are crazy and dont take care of anyone but there selfs older ones know when we have sex there arer things to do either birth control or not if not be ready to do the right thing , if you are raped there is a morning after pill dont wait, This is a subject that a husband and wife should talk about not the goverment they have there noses syuck in to many of our rights the way it is next thing you know we will have to vote to see if we can use the bathroom or not so but out of our rights !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Robbie Moraes

    Well that guy got kicked out of office by the voters so that;s what happens when big brainless statements are made.