Most politicians aren’t scientists, but that hasn’t stopped them from playing one on TV — badly — when the fancy strikes. On Sunday, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri became the latest legislator to bungle science, when he revealed his stunning lack of knowledge about human reproduction during an interview with KTVI-TV in St. Louis.
Asked about his stance on abortion, the Republican Senate candidate attempted to explain his unqualified opposition to it, even in cases of rape: “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
In other words, the Congressman seemed to suggest, a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant by rape depends on her intent. If she truly does not want to have intercourse, her body would “shut down” a pregnancy. And, by logical extension, if she gets pregnant, then she must not have been raped.
Biologically speaking, no such link between intent of intercourse and pregnancy exists (though the myth goes back centuries). Pregnancy results when an egg is fertilized by sperm during intercourse, whether the act is consensual or not. “I am constantly amazed at the lack of understanding not only of folks running for office, but in office, about women’s reproductive health,” says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “The statement by Mr. Akin, I think is politics at its worst, ignoring basic medicine and science in pursuit of some political ideology.”
Often, such ideology is rooted in religious beliefs, but just as often it’s driven by nothing more than shaky or incomplete knowledge about the basics of biology. Later, Akin said he “misspoke” during the TV interview and recanted his previous comment: “Rape is never legitimate. It’s an evil act that’s committed by violent predators. I used the wrong words in the wrong way.” He noted that he knew women could get pregnant through rape.
Akin apologized, but he wasn’t the first and unfortunately won’t be the last elected official to wade foolishly into the realm of science, where facts, and not ideology, take precedence. Take a look at the following list of notable biological blunders made by politicians.