The medieval wing of the Republican party

As a former specialist in the Middle Ages, I thought I was moving on in time by becoming an observer of the contemporary political scene.

Ironically, medieval training now becomes relevant, as it turns out that Rep. Todd Akin and some of his colleagues have been making their contribution to the continuity of western civilization by thinking medievally right here in the 21st century.

King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, and all those old stories are still much appreciated today, so why not also the medical knowledge of 8 centuries ago?

Sharon Begley and Susan Heavey, “Rape trauma as barrier to pregnancy has no scientific basis.” Chicago Tribune, 8/20/12, point out that:

…Writers from the Middle Ages and modern politicians alike have based their arguments on the idea that a trauma of the magnitude of rape can shut down the body’s reproductive system.

The combination of misunderstanding and cherry-picked science even led some to conclude that a woman who says she was raped yet becomes pregnant must have been lying about the attack. Modern proponents of the claim repeat it despite empirical research showing that rape victims are at least as likely to become pregnant as women who have consensual sex, and possibly more likely.

Representative Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, spurred new outrage on the subject when he told a St. Louis television station he does not support abortion for rape victims because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”…

The claim that rape is unlikely to lead to a pregnancy has “no biological plausibility,” said Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The claim is “not grounded in any physiology or scientifically valid data.”

Akin is not alone in his view about rape and pregnancy, however. It dates at least to medieval times, when a 13th century English legal tome called Fleta asserted that pregnancy was prima facie evidence against a charge of rape, “for without a woman’s consent she could not conceive.”…

Vanessa Heggie, “‘Legitimate rape’ – a medieval medical concept,” Guardian (UK), 8/20/12, provides further history:

The idea that rape victims cannot get pregnant has long roots. The legal position that pregnancy disproved a claim of rape appears to have been instituted in the UK sometime in the 13th century. One of the earliest British legal texts, Fleta, has a clause in the first book of the second volume stating that:

“If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman’s consent she could not conceive.”

This was a long-lived legal argument. Samuel Farr’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence contained the same idea as late as 1814:

“For without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place. So that if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated, it is not likely she would become pregnant.”

See also “Virgins Don’t Conceive. Rape Victims Do” by Bill Sheehan, Linear A, 8/20/1

The 65-year-old Akin’s understanding of human reproduction is rooted in the Middle Ages. A British legal reference from the 13th century stated If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman’s consent she could not conceive. This misconception (sorry) continued in British legal lore until the 1800s. Samuel Farr’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, published in 1814, states For without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.

Our ancestors saw it this way: a women’s genitals are the same as a man’s, just inverted. Women are by nature weaker, lacking the strength to have a penis or force the ovaries out of the body as testes. In order for an impregnation to occur, the man must orgasm, and so must the woman, though not necessarily simultaneously. The male climax introduces his seed, the female climax adds her seed or whatever it is women contribute to the mix. It must be something, because children often resemble the mother, not the father.

If she climaxes during rape, then she must be enjoying it. And you know what kind of woman enjoys having sex with men not her husband, don’t you? Sluts!

It sounds childishly simple, but bear in mind that female ova were not discovered until 1827 and that the mechanism of reproduction was the sperm entering the ovum didn’t hit the scientific literature until 1843. Akin apparently didn’t pick up on that new science. His college course of study had nothing to do with biology – he studied engineering management at Worcester Polytechnic. For his Master’s, he went to Covenant Theological Seminary and got a degree in divinity.

So, the whole debate, if you can call it that, turns out to be an exercise in how individual human beings’ own background colors their view of reality.

Or of what used to be called reality; see my August 30 post “History lesson for John McCain.”

And of what used to be called science; see my July 17, 2011, post “Dinosaurs, Noah’s Ark, and education vouchers,” especially if you’ve been wondering how dinosaurs lived through the Great Flood.

I remember reading about a few isolated human populations still living in the Stone Age who had not made a connection between sex and pregnancy. That connection is sort of indirect, actually, since the two events take place about 9 months apart. Maybe Rep. Akin and others in the medieval wing of the Republican party just need a basic modern sex ed class?


About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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