By Tom Still
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin has decided to remain in the Republican primary race for U.S. Senate in Missouri. In the meantime, can someone at least kick him off the House Science Committee?
Akin is justifiably under fire for saying women’s bodies can naturally prevent pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape,” an assertion that suggests he missed far more high-school biology classes than he attended.
One of 23 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Akin was asked Sunday if he would support abortions for women who are raped. His recorded reply: “It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists quickly countered Akin’s biological nonsense by stating a woman who is raped “has no control over ovulation, fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg… To suggest otherwise contradicts basic scientific truths.”
In fact, peer-reviewed studies have repeatedly shown that the pregnancy rate of women of reproductive age (12 to 45) who were raped is precisely the same – 5 percent – as women who had consensual sex.
Akin’s views can be traced to Dr. John Willke, an 87-year-old general practitioner and former president of the National Right to Life Committee, who wrote in 1999 that rape pregnancies are “extremely rare” and that the stress of rape helps prevent pregnancy.
Willke’s theory has been repudiated as “just nuts,” “absurd” and “utter hogwash” by a parade of obstetricians and other medical professionals, but that hasn’t stopped those who want to believe it’s true from continuing to think so. Apparently, that group includes Akin.
While scientific voodoo is unavoidable in a nation of 313 million people with wildly divergent religious beliefs and educational levels, it’s a bit frightening when the witch doctor is a member of Congress… and a veteran member of the House Science Committee, no less.
Akin is a graduate of the Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s first engineering and technology universities, where he earned a degree in management engineering. Akin presumably learned about scientific methods and inquiry somewhere along the way, but he seemed to forget that training in his haste to embrace a theory founded in ideology over fact.
It’s a recurring problem in public life. Far too many elected officials choose to ignore scientific evidence when given the choice between sound public policy and political expediency. That’s often the case in Congress, which claims only 30 doctors, engineers and scientists among its 535 members, as well as other levels of government.
This know-nothing streak in public policy is dangerous in an age when so many issues compel our leaders to be literate in science and technology. From space exploration to alternative energy, from environmental science to the future of the Internet, and from medical research to food safety to cybersecurity, many of the nation’s challenges involve a basic understanding of science. If not understanding, at least a willingness to listen.
Elected officials need not be Ph.D.’s or rocket scientists to help solve those problems, but they should be open to advice from respected researchers, technicians and professionals. The range of challenges facing modern life – feeding a planet of 7 billion people, keeping the lights on and the water clean, for starters – are too complex. Choices based on superstition and urban myths don’t hold up well so long as the laws of physics and nature still rule.
Republican heavyweights from Mitt Romney on down have urged Akin to step aside, but a state deadline for dropping out of the Missouri race has passed. That means Akin will continue his run for the U.S. Senate, at least for now. If he wins, let’s hope he’s assigned to a committee where sorting scientific fact from fiction isn’t required. In today’s world, however, that’s all of them.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.