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‘Legitimate rape’ comment resurrected on ‘Law and Order: SVU’

After Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) beat former Rep. Todd Akin (R) in November for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, I didn’t think I’d be typing the phrase “legitimate rape” again.

But here came Wednesday’s episode of NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU,” with its story “ripped from the headlines” as the promo announced. Well, last August’s headlines anyway.

Demonstrators protest Rep. Todd Akin's campaign rally for women in Kansas City. (Diana Reese / For the Washington Post Demonstrators protest Rep. Todd Akin’s campaign rally for women in Kansas City. (Diana Reese / For the Washington Post

In case you’ve forgotten, Akin made the comment, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” during a St. Louis television interview Aug. 18, shortly after winning the Republican primary. He effectively shut down his chance to win the November election.

Akin, a father of six and former member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, was wrong, of course, about the power of the female body. “Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency,” concluded the authors of a 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. They found that 5 percent of women ages 12 to 45 who were raped became pregnant  — 32,000 women a year.

But more disturbing was Akin’s suggestion that only some rapes are “legitimate.” That led Shauna Prewitt, an attorney and mother of a child conceived in rape, to write a letter to Akin that went viral, telling him, “Your statement poses another setback to the cause that I have fought passionately for since my life changed forever when I was raped and became pregnant from that rape at 21.”

“The way we depict rape in television and movies is usually stranger rape,” Prewitt told me in August. “We as a society have come to believe that’s what rape is.” Yet the typical rape often occurs in a private location, such as a bedroom. Or the backseat of a car — you know, like the girl who was raped by high school football players in Steubenville.

Prewitt went on to law school and wrote the first scholarly paper on the limited legal protections for mothers of rape-conceived children, published in 2010 in The Georgetown Law Journal.

She found that in more than half of states, the rapist-father is free to sue for custody and visitation, with the same paternal rights as any other father. That gives him ammunition to threaten the mother, who may agree to drop criminal charges if he terminates his parental rights.

Wednesday morning, before I had seen the episode, I wrote that this should be the story featured on “Law and Order: SVU.”

Spoiler alert: It was. The show went beyond the hype of Akin’s comment. His explanation of “legitimate rape,” paraphrased by a former congressman who took the witness stand as “an expert,” provided the plot twist for the show to address the legal issues facing mothers whose children are conceived in rape.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.


Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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