Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mary Block on the Todd Akin Scandal

My longtime friend and colleague, Mary Block of Valdosta State University, is an expert on nineteenth-century American rape law. Whatever her immediate reactions may have been to Representative Todd Akin's declaration on August 19th that pregnancy was prima facie evidence of consensual sex, surprise was not among them. To media commentators who wondered where Akin's outre (and deeply ignorant) remarks came from, Mary sent the following explanation, which she has kindly permitted me to repost here:

Anderson Cooper stated on his show AC 360 that we did not know where Todd Akin got the idea that a raped woman could not conceive and most other print and TV commentators act like Akin simply pulled the notion out of his own backside. The idea that a woman can't get pregnant as a result of rape, however, has a long and storied history. It began when the Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that even though only a man emitted seed during sexual intercourse, pregnancy depended on and resulted only from female orgasm. Several Greek and Roman physicians picked up on that theory of conception and altered parts of it, for example the Roman physician Galen posited that both males and females emitted seed during intercourse, but they carried forward the idea that no woman could beget a child unless she had an orgasm during coitus.

The theory made its way into Roman law in the sixth century during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). Justinian's chief physician was a man named Aetios of Amida. Aetios was not just any physician, he was also one of the best trained and the foremost expert on the womb. The doctor told Justinian that in order for a woman to conceive, she had to experience 'violent passion,' by which he meant an orgasm, during sex, and that the more violent the passion she exhibited, the more likely was to become pregnant. Conversely, a woman who did not achieve violent passion was highly unlikely to conceive. Women who claimed to have been raped, according to Aetios, could never conceive because such an event was so traumatic the female could never experience orgasm and thus no woman could ever conceive as the result of a rape. Aetios is asserting, or perhaps inventing, the idea that conception is possible only if the sex is consensual. Rape is possible only in the absence of consent, ergo, any woman who cried rape yet subsequently conceived had lied. Pregnancy served as proof of consent and proof of consent negates a claim of rape.

During his reign Justinian compiled a Civil Code of all extant Roman law. His compilers actually broadened the law of raptus to include the forcible rape of virgins, nuns, and widows and added the ancient medical fiction that a raped woman could not conceive. Roman law thus made it official that any woman who claimed to have been raped, but who then got pregnant had lied. English canon lawyers beginning in the twelfth century, good Catholics that they were, emphasized the Roman law over Anglo-Saxon law, and in so doing, introduced Byzantine science into English canon and civil law. The idea quickly made its way into common law through the treatise writings of Gratian (late twelft century) and Bracton (early thirteenth century) and remained there until the early nineteenth century.

American law is based in English law. One point of note is that American courts rejected this medical and legal fiction in 1793 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that rape was a crime against the honor and person of a woman and had nothing to do with the begetting of a child. Alas, unlike Todd Akin, the Pennsylvania judges were products of the American Enlightenment and men who respected eighteenth-century science. To be sure, there were men of medicine, and a few of law, who continued to peddle the idea that a raped woman could not conceive well into the nineteenth century, but most people considered them to be quacks.

I guess no one should really be surprised that those trying to force us to live according to the dictates of the ancient Near East would also try to force us to accept the science of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Akin was invoking the medical science of the ancient Greeks and Romans when he asserted that a woman who was raped could never get pregnant. What he meant when he used the phrase "legitimate rape" was that any woman who was in fact 'forcibly' raped, another term fundamentalists like Akin and Paul Ryan like to use, cannot ever conceive. Conception means consent and if she consented, then she could not have been raped. Therefore, in their twisted little minds, no rape exception need be written into any abortion laws because pregnancy serves as affirmative proof that a woman is lying about rape. She just wants an abortion. If enough of these guys get elected in 2012, expect to see reality TV showing us the witches being burned at the stake. Sadly, on some level, their invoking the science of the Dark Ages means they've advanced several millennia from their usual biblical frame of reference and that means, I suppose, that they can call themselves progressives!

Contact information:

Mary Block
Associate Professor of History
Valdosta State University


Many thanks, Mary!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

It Should Be Thrown with Great Force

As a courtesy to those readers interested in my blog entries on Niall Ferguson and his 2011 book (White Christian) Civilization, here is an index to the entire series:

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Dolt (8 Nov. 2011)
A review of one of Ferguson's vapid Newsweek articles.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Douchebag (29 Nov. 2011)
Niall-o threatens to sue one of Civilization's reviewers.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Tosser (13 Jan. 2012)
On the Introduction to Civilization.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Colossal Muttonhead (31 Jan. 2012)
Civilization, Chapter One.  Niall misinterprets early modern China.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Rotter (11 Feb. 2012)
Niall-o urges Westerners to prepare for a holy war against Iran in Civilization, Chapter Two.

Niall Ferguson Is Still Careless and Intellectually Lazy (29 March 2012)
Civilization, Chapter Three. Niall is still a wanker.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Kneebiter (27 May 2012)
Civilization, Chapter Four. Some empires are more equal than others.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Jackwagon (7 July 2012)
Hunting the DFHs in Civilization, Chapter Five.

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Ghastly Asshat (26 July 2012)
On your knees and pray for salvation, dissolute youth of Western Europe! (Civilization, Ch. 6.)

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Fecking Gobshite, with Extra Gob (2 Aug. 2012)
Civilization, Concluded, and none too soon.

I'll probably have one more entry on Civilization in a week or so, but for now I think I've spent way too much time with Ferg's little billet-doux to himself.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Fecking Gobshite, with Extra Gob

Niall C.D.E. Ferguson, O.F.G.*, concludes his book Civilizationpants with an expanded version of the essay he published in Newsweek last year, and which drew your humble narrator into this extended wallow in crapulence. To summarize: Ferg asserts that all civilizations eventually fall, and often do so very quickly, as in the case of the Romans, the Incas, the Bourbon Dynasty in France, and the Soviet Union. (That the Roman Empire took several centuries to collapse, that French civilization and the Bourbon monarchy survived 1789, and that even the collapsing Soviet empire enjoyed two decades of fitful adventurism before the final dissolution, are observations that need no expansion here.) In the modern West, the last imperial power, the United States, is likely to collapse in consequence of its excessive debts, which Ferguson argues are comparable to those of several past empires on the verge of collapse: Habsburg Spain, the Ottoman Empire, France under Louis XVI (again). The successor to America's imperial mantle, China, has absorbed some of the West's values but remains an aggressive and authoritarian state; it has downloaded some but not all of the West's "killer apps." Westerners probably cannot recover their former predominance without matching China's investments in education and scientific research, and without balancing their nations' budgets.
          Ferguson's last few pieces of advice seem sensible enough, as does his reminder in passing that Europe owed its rise to power more to its institutions than to its military strength. But I'm not sure I would want to appoint Niall-o to head any sort of Multi-National Task Force on the Current Crisis, in part because one of his proposals, regarding balanced budgets and austerity, would be very counter-productive right now. Setting modern Europe aside for the time being, Ferguson's insistence that the U.S. has reached an unsustainable level of debt elides one essential figure, which is the cost of servicing that debt. At present the U.S. government spends about ten percent of outlays on interest payments (including intra-governmental debt), which is high, but nowhere near the 50 percent paid by the Ottomans and Bourbons and the nearly 100% paid by the sixteenth-century Habsburgs. The reason debt-servicing costs remain low, even as the national debt climbs to record levels, is because interest rates are effectively zero – on some Treasury bills, they are negative. Given that the United States can essentially charge investors for the privilege of loaning it money, it behooves the U.S. government to borrow every penny it can lay hands on, and use the revenue to jump-start a stagnant economy. (Yes, this means we'll be bequeathing the millennial generation a huge debt, but right now we're bequeathing them a 20 percent unemployment rate, which is more damaging to their long-term economic prospects.)
          Mainly I want to keep Ferg away from policy-making because I'm not sure he's willing to support policies that reflect his more sensible assertions. Niall may be skeptical about the long-term correlation between military force and world dominance, but that doesn't mean he isn't prepared to commit American air forces to the destruction of Iran's nuclear program (as he intimates at the end of Chapter 2). He may favor scientific research and educational investment, but his idea of an appropriate education would be one steeped in Western classics – all written by British authors,** incidentally – rather than one which focused more directly on developing critical thinking skills. Niall-o has more recently argued that Americans shouldn't bother to invest in education, because it won't do impoverished children any good. In April 2012 Ferguson was one of the distinguished guests at the Millken conference, a $6,000-a-ticket gathering of the rapacious rich hosted by Ferg's soulmate Michael Millken. When one of the panelists, billionaire Jeff Greene, began talking about the stresses faced by the impoverished American underclass, and suggested that with a little more "education" and "after-school programs" poor kids might be able to stay out of jail, Ferguson "drawled…'Dream. On.'" It appears Niall-o doesn't really believe education will help anyone who is much below his own income level. Presumably, like other American conservatives, he would prefer to build more prisons, where as punishment disaffected young people would be forced to read Ferguson's books.

(The above photo is either of Michael Millken or Niall Ferguson; take your pick.)

*Order of the Fecking Gobshite, created by King George V in 1931, and awarded quasi-annually since then. 

** The author has decided to reserve discussion of Ferguson's ideal core curriculum for another blog post, as this one is already long.