Does Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have special powers? Is the ultraconservative Republican a superhero sans cape? Having signed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law — abortions are banned after six weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest — Abbott says he will simply work to “eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas.”
If that’s as easy as he makes it sound, why hasn’t it happened before now? Why not add a few other crimes, such as homicide, to the list? And why not tackle some of the other huge problems confronting his state, such as curbing the COVID-19 outbreak? (If he were genuinely pro-life, the governor would follow public health guidelines instead of flouting them. The pandemic has already killed nearly 60,000 Texans, according to federal data.)
But Abbott is no superhero. He’s just another right-winger intent on restricting women’s reproductive choices.
Eliminating “all rapists” would be helpful, certainly, but even if it were possible, it would happen belatedly. A rapist can be arrested and prosecuted only after the crime, so his victim is already traumatized and possibly pregnant.
The Texas law would force the victim to carry the pregnancy to term despite Abbott’s flimsy lie. He claimed to reporters that because women have six weeks to terminate a pregnancy, the new law doesn’t force a rape victim to carry her attacker’s child. But many women and girls don’t realize they are pregnant at six weeks; those traumatized by rape may still be in denial about their experience.
Abbott is the current poster boy for antediluvian ideas about rape, but he is hardly alone. You may remember Todd Akin, a Republican congressman from Missouri who, in 2012, was well on his way to a seat in the U.S. Senate when he declared in a TV interview that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he said.
Let’s leave aside, for a moment, Akin’s peculiar ideas about “legitimate rape” and focus instead on his misunderstanding of biology. If a rapist’s semen fertilizes an egg, the victim stands an excellent chance of becoming pregnant — just as any woman having consensual sex would.
Yet, Akin’s comments were endorsed by Phil Gingrey, a gynecologist then serving as a GOP congressman from Georgia: “We tell infertile couples all the time that are having trouble conceiving because of the woman not ovulating, ‘Just relax. Drink a glass of wine. And don’t be so tense and uptight because all that adrenaline can cause you not to ovulate.’ So (Akin) was partially right, wasn’t he?”
Akin went on to lose his race for the Senate, and Gingrey lost a bid for the GOP nomination for a Senate seat two years later. But their views live on in the Republican Party, where facts are fiction, science is suspect and feminism is akin to witchcraft. Indeed, their views about women and rape are echoed worldwide.
Take the notion of “legitimate rape,” which, as a way of blaming the victim, is wildly popular. What Akin tried clumsily to express is the idea that women “ask” for sexual assault by drinking heavily or wearing skimpy clothing or behaving provocatively. If they are then sexually assaulted, it doesn’t qualify as a “legitimate” rape. Some form of that belief exists in the ultraconservative strains of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as it does in many major institutions, including the U.S. Armed Forces.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many victims hesitate to report that they’ve been raped. That’s even more likely to be the case if a woman is assaulted by an acquaintance instead of a stranger. While rape by a stranger who breaks into a woman’s home is a popular Hollywood trope, women are more often raped by men they know. But who would believe them?
As Texas and other GOP-dominated states slow-walk toward abolishing Roe v. Wade, we are likely to hear more crackpot theories about rapists and their “legitimacy” and the powers of police to clear them from the streets. Those baseless notions simply expose the misogyny that informs them.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007.