Over the weekend, Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin created a firestorm of criticism when he told an interviewer that he was against all abortions, including in cases of rape, and then went on to say, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Given that Rep. Akin is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, his easy use of medically false information is deeply troubling. Unfortunately, inaccurate and stigmatizing rhetoric used at the expense of women is becoming all too familiar in our political discourse.
Akin’s demeaning comments exemplify the persistent and troubling gender bias in policy debates specific to women’s health. According to a study from the Medical University of South Carolina, more than 30,000 pregnancies occur each year because of rape. One of out every six women, including Latinas, has been the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), and the number of Latinas who have been sexually assaulted or raped could reach 10.8 million by 2050, according to the Office of Justice Programs.
For Latinas and other women who are immigrants, Rep. Akin’s foolish comments add another layer of outrage because we know that women immigrants are less likely to report rape and domestic violence due to the anti-immigrant climate and fear of deportation.
Yet instead of focusing on solutions that would provide women access to crucial health care and services, Rep. Akin fabricates medical facts to police women’s reproductive choices. This kind of rhetoric creates a dangerous climate that devalues women’s health.
This attitude also ties directly to the even more devastating legislative attacks on programs that support women’s health. During the health care reform battle, Latinas were most often excluded thanks to immigration restrictions that cut off many poor women from abortion access, the removal of federal family planning dollars and the efforts of states across the country to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, which disproportionately serves Latinas. At the federal level, policymakers relied on insulting and plainly false assertions about women of color to push through a ban on “race- and sex-based” abortions.
Statements like Rep. Akins’, combined with such callous policymaking, show how little value too many of our elected officials place on women’s health.
Unfortunately, in today’s mean-spirited political climate, these policy battles often result in poor women and other vulnerable communities being cut off from essential health care.
For example, even after the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, opponents continue to try to roll back access to contraception without expensive co-pays despite the enormous gains for women. Latinas face higher rates of unintended pregnancy and young Latinas are more likely than any other group to skip taking prescription birth control because they can’t afford it. Locally, governors of states with millions of Latinas, including Texas and Florida, flatly refuse to expand Medicaid, denying basic health care — like breast exams and cervical cancer screenings — to millions of Latinas.
We face an urgent need to protect access to abortion and contraception and to ensure that all women, including low-income women, have access to the full range of reproductive choices for any personal reason, rape included. Thankfully, Rep. Akin has been widely — and rightfully — criticized, as have efforts by lawmakers to use stigmatizing tactics. Whether legislators are calling Latinas derogatory names like “breeders of anchor babies” or creating arbitrary categories around rape, the result is the same: The Latina activist movement grows stronger and more determined to advocate for reproductive justice.
Jessica González-Rojas is the Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. The institute is the only national organization working on behalf of the reproductive health and justice of the 20 million Latinas, their families and communities in the U.S. through public education, community mobilization, and policy advocacy.