Perpetuating misinformation in public policy: Should legislators be given sex ed as part of their orientation?

21 Aug

ImageBy: Adrienne Gavula, MSW, LSW
Relationship Manager, NASW Ohio Chapter

Imagine my surprise when I turned on the news yesterday to learn from Representative Akin that the female body has a natural way to shut down pregnancy from a legitimate rape. Putting aside the discussion that needs to happen about what constitutes a legitimate rape in his mind; from a purely public health standpoint we have a legislator in charge of public health policies who does not understand basic reproduction.

I can assure you Representative Akin that pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV do not discriminate on any basis – “legitimate” rape or not, whatever the distinction in your mind might be.

Unfortunately when it comes to sexuality and reproductive health knowledge he is not in the minority. If you look at teens (ages 18-19) 41 percent know little or nothing about condoms, and 75 percent say they know little or nothing about contraception. The consequences of this knowledge gap are far-reaching. Of the approximately 750,000 teen pregnancies that occur each year, 82 percent are unintended, and every year nine million new STIs occur among teens in the U.S. (Guttmacher Institute).

By having a legislator who does not understand basic reproduction we are perpetuating misinformation in public policy, which has devastating consequences for teens who need knowledge and for rape survivors in need of medically-accurate care.

Putting aside his inadequate and dangerously limited view of how a woman’s body and pregnancy works, the unique feelings, experiences, stories and needs of women are left out of the discussion. Following up, he claimed that he misspoke, and that’s probably true because he likely meant to say “forcible rape,” a term used in his sponsored legislation.

“Forcible rape” is not defined in the criminal code and implies that other acts of rape are not legitimate and perhaps are less traumatic for women (statutory rape, victims of incest if they’re over 18, rape occurring after a woman is drugged…). By trying to limit the definition of rape we create a hierarchy of trauma and say to a woman or man that the violation of their body, personal autonomy and security is not legitimate because in the eyes of the U.S. House of Representatives the rape they experienced was not considered forced. This is offensive and shows how out-of-touch legislators can be from the actual problems and experiences of the people they represent.

Representative Akin went on to say, “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist.” By trying to limit the definition of rape, by forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy from the rape to term and by denying women who have been raped access to emergency contraception, Representative Akin is, in fact, punishing and re-traumatizing women. Choice and autonomy have been taken away from the survivor, and it is extremely important we give back that sense of control.

The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center receives about 3,000 calls per year on its 24-hour crisis hotline, and it is estimated that 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year (American Journal of Obstetricians and Gynecologists). These women deserve legislators who authenticate their experience, and they deserve the security and choice of not becoming pregnant as a result of their rape.

His original quote said while on air on KTVI-TV:
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors (pregnancy from rape) is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist.”

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One Response to “Perpetuating misinformation in public policy: Should legislators be given sex ed as part of their orientation?”

  1. Frank Baker August 25, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    I was just talking to wife the other day about the very issue of mandatory sex education for our legislators. Glad to see I’m not the only that thinks it would helpful.

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