Todd Akin: The Arkansas Angle

Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, nominee for the 2012 Worst Misunderstanding of Reproductive Biology Award.

After Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s regrettable statement on Sunday, that “the female body” has a biological response to rape that typically blocks pregnancy,  observers of Arkansas political history were probably experiencing déjà vu.

In 1998, Arkansas Senate candidate Fay Boozman expressed a similar view: namely, that the rush of adrenaline created by the anxiety of rape or incest would make conception unlikely to occur. (Although it was widely misreported that Dr. Boozman had used the phrase “God’s little protective shield,” columnist John Brummett has since clarified that the phrase came from Brummett, not from Boozman.)

But I imagine some observers of Arkansas political history are unaware that what one might call the Akin theory of conception was decisively rejected by an Arkansas court almost two centuries ago, long before Arkansas became a state. In U.S. v. Thomas Dickinson (1820), Dickinson’s lawyer argued that his client was necessarily innocent of rape, because the rape complainant, Sally Hall, became pregnant. The court held that this defense failed, noting:

“The old notion that if the woman conceive, it could not be a rape, because she must have in such case have consented, is quite exploded. [Emphasis added, legal citations omitted.] Impregnation, it is well known, does not depend on the consciousness or volition of the female. If the uterine organs be in a condition favorable to impregnation, this may take place as readily as if the intercourse was voluntary.” (U.S. v. Dickinson, 1 Hempstead Reporter 1 (1820 Ark. Territory), at 2 n.1.)

In short, the Akin theory of conception was viewed by courts and physicians as groundless in 1820, six years before the death of Adams and Jefferson. One might say that the United States of America understood the flaws in Akin’s theory of conception when it was younger than Akin is. (As for Dickinson, he was found guilty and sentenced “to be castrated according to the law … by a skilful physician,” but was pardoned by James Miller, Arkansas’s territorial governor.)

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