Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
Unsurprisingly, the recent incendiary remarks by Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, are already being used in several races to go after other GOP candidates. The Akin fiasco is likely to come back to haunt Mitt Romney as well. The extremism represented by Akin and his ilk reinforces the charge that the right in America is waging a "war against women," and in the process, reasonable and non-hateful opinions are likely to be smeared as misogynist. Conservatives will have only themselves to blame.
Akin's infamous comment, explaining his view that abortion should be illegal even for rape victims and asserting that pregnancy from rape is "really rare" -- "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down" -- was hardly a slip. As documented by Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic and other journalists, the notion that rape seldom results in pregnancy has been circulating in right-to-life circles for a long time.
While such claims are steeped in ignorance (have these activists never heard of pregnant rape victims in war zones?), there is a certain logic to them. Forcing a raped woman to carry the pregnancy to term is so revolting to most people that the best way to defend such a position is to minimize the problem into virtual nonexistence.
Meanwhile, a leading GOP state official in Akin's home state, Sharon Barnes, has opined that abortion for rape victims is not the answer when "God has chosen to bless this person with a life." The fact that this remark comes from a woman doesn't make it any less odious.
Sometimes, conservatives have been unfairly slapped with the "war against women" label. It is not anti-female to criticize "pay equity" laws that would give bureaucrats new powers to look for hidden gender bias in factors that determine salaries. It is not anti-female to note that, as plenty of economists agree, much of the current disparity in male and female earnings is due to real differences in experience, specialization and work choices. It is not anti-female to believe that religiously affiliated institutions should not have to subsidize employee insurance coverage for birth control, against their beliefs.
Even in more sensitive areas such as crimes against women, the charge of misogyny has been too easily bandied about to silence dissenting views. Sometimes, feminist zeal on behalf of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence has led to policies that treat men as guilty until proven innocent. Some advocates have tried to broaden the definition of rape so that a woman who feels emotionally pressured into unwanted sex can be considered a victim. Those concerned about these trends are not warriors in a patriarchal crusade.
Unfortunately, opposing feminist excesses often puts one in the company of people whose rhetoric reeks of bona fide misogyny -- and thus, in a no-win situation. Try arguing against overly broad definitions of rape, and you have to worry about echoing Akin's glib distinction between "legitimate rape" and the other kind.
People who (rightly or wrongly) oppose same-sex marriage for non-bigoted reasons face the same conundrum. Recently, pro-fatherhood activist David Blankenhorn, who had argued for preserving the definition of marriage as a male-female union on the grounds that it's best for children to be raised by both biological parents, has reversed his position on the grounds that much of the push against gay marriage is driven by bigotry. And now, as if to prove him right, the Texas Republican Party has passed a platform which asserts that "the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society."
When it comes to gender issues, conservatives have valuable views to bring to the table. But, to be effective, they must firmly repudiate the bigots in their midst.