Let’s get the easy part out of the way: Rep. Todd Akin’s now globally infamous remarks that pregnancy does not result from cases of “legitimate” rape were wrong.
Biologically, Rep. Akin’s assertion is absurd to the point of being nonsensical. Women who have become pregnant from rapes have provided anecdotal evidence that pregnancy is indeed possible following rapes, including this brave, articulate, and heart-wrenching open letter from a lawyer who gave birth to, and raised, a baby girl after being raped. At the same time, doctors and scientists have lined up unanimously to confirm what to most people is stunningly obvious: pregnancy can, and does, result from rape.
It’s almost equally obvious to me that Rep. Akin’s remarks are wrong on an entirely different level as well. Even as a male who has never been victimized by sexual violence, I couldn’t read Rep.Akin’s remarks without physically cringing with discomfort and outrage.1 I can’t fathom what it would be like to read those remarks as a person who had experienced sexual violence, even more if as a woman who had become pregnant as a result of such violence.
Of the brute fact that Rep. Akin’s remarks were wrong there can be no second opinion. None. But once my indignation had died down enough to become coherent, I’ve been left with a nagging and far more difficult question: so what?
Part of the answer, of course, is already playing out in public discourse. The real and devastating reality that women are subjected to sexualized violence worldwide has hit the global news cycles with a vengeance. While sexual violence against women has been ignored as an issue far too often for me to react with unguarded optimism, I pray that this incident can be a catalyst for further strengthening of laws to protect victims and prevent violence against women.
But of course, these truths don’t explain what this means for me. I don’t get to let myself off the hook quite that easily. And, unexpectedly, the question of what it all means for me leads me straight back to Rep. Akin.
I don’t know an awful lot about Rep. Akin, but I suspect that a Congressional representative and a young Jesuit such as myself might meet the world quite differently. That said, for all our differences, we have one important commonality: people ask us tough questions about real-world issues. And that gives me pause.
No one asked me whether or not pregnancy results from rape today, but they might have. It could happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. It’s a pretty fair bet that over the course of my life, I’ll probably be asked a question, in public, about pregnancy resulting from rape. Or a question about physical abuse. Or sexual abuse. Or one about addiction. Or suicide. Or…
The list goes on. But for me the issue is clear: these questions are not just abstractions. They ought not be considered in only legal or moral terms. I want to face these questions as lived realities – as things that have happened to real people, who have been affected by them; wounded; torn. These questions are not academic, they are alive. And this means that, if they are handled crudely or even merely indelicately, the answers that one (even one such as myself) might give have nearly unlimited potential to rip open old wounds. Forgetting that these are questions that emerge from real experiences can result in once again injuring those who have already been victimized all too often.
This subject is so tender, so sensitive. And because of this I want to say again that what Rep. Akin said was wrong, and that I would never say something similar. But I am – by no means – immune from causing distress or injury with an ill-chosen remark.
My prayer today is as humble a prayer as I (a not-too-humble guy) can manage: Lord, grant me a listening heart, so I may hear with compassion the voice of people who have known pain that I have not.
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- German does a better job expressing this emotion than English. In German, Fremdschämen is a word used to describe shame or embarrassment arising from the actions of others. But I digress. ↩