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Mo. Senate candidate Akin's rape remark sparks disbelief among North Dakotans

Todd Akin

FARGO -- For one Fargo woman, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's words about women's bodies preventing pregnancies after what he termed a "legitimate rape" are frightening in their ignorance -- and deeply personal for her.

"It's like such a fantastical, unbelievable, hard-to-even-grasp concept that somebody would even think that. It's just so far out there. It's in Crazyland," said DL, a 50-year-old who says she was impregnated by rape at age 16. The Forum is using only her initials because it doesn't typically identify victims of sexual assault.

DL said she was raped by an older acquaintance who thought that if he got her pregnant, she would be forced to marry him. She got an abortion, traveling to another state and using a friend's identification to get the procedure done.

"That time in my life was very difficult. I was virtually homeless and I had very troubled parents, and I had to struggle through that on my own. I think as hard as that was, as a 16-year-old girl, if I had heard a senator say something that would make me think that I somehow could have prevented it. I don't know what it would have done. It certainly could have tipped the scales for me" to attempt suicide, DL said.

A political football

Experts in reproductive health and rape and abuse counseling contacted by The Forum said the divisive yet important issue of rape and abortion has been turned into a political football by Akin's remarks.

Greg Diehl, the executive director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis in Fargo, said myths -- like a woman's body somehow preventing pregnancy if she's being raped -- are embraced by people who "like to find simple solutions to complex problems," or "people who have never worked with victims of sex assault ... or haven't known anyone who has been assaulted."

It becomes a problem when a prominent person repeats these myths, he said. Then, even if the person is excoriated, the myth somehow gains credence, he said.

Diehl said Akin's remarks play to the mentality that focuses on the victim being at fault.

"If it causes anyone who's been victimized to believe they're not going to be believed ... it's certainly going to have a negative impact on victims," he said.

But it also provides a chance to educate people and set the record straight.

"Which is only going to serve as a positive thing in the end," Diehl said.

Despite a barrage of criticism, Akin, a Republican seeking to represent Missouri in the Senate, has ignored calls to drop out of the race -- including some from fellow Republicans.

'The guy is an idiot'

Dr. Kari Wessman, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Prairie Gyn Associates in Fargo and Crookston, said the feedback she's heard is "pretty much overwhelming that the guy is an idiot."

"What he's been talking about is pretty well ridiculous," Wessman said. "The experience I've had with my patients is that they are offended, and angry."

She said it's important for women to get help as soon as they can if they are raped. She said the experience can be extremely disorienting, debilitating and traumatic.

"I think it's important that they don't not just do anything about it," she said, urging women to contact the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, law enforcement agencies, or hospital emergency centers.

"The biggie for a person experiencing that is to ... get up and tell somebody and get help right away," Wessman said.

'Rape is rape'

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said neither of the dioceses he covers has received any calls about Akin's remarks.

While he doesn't take a stand on Akin's assertion that women who have been raped can naturally prevent pregnancy, he says there's no such thing as labeling a rape "legitimate" or not.

"Rape is rape," Dodson said.

Dodson said that the Catholic Church -- which is strongly opposed to abortion -- teaches that victims of a sexual assault have the right to prevent conception from occurring. He said all Catholic hospitals follow a policy to help a woman prevent conception from occurring in cases of rape.

"The protocols and procedures may differ, as long as they determine that fertilization hasn't occurred, the basic position is, if adequate tests are done to determine if fertilization hasn't occurred, she has a right to prevent conception," Dodson said.

Have compassion

If DL could speak to Akin, she'd ask him to have compassion for women who have been attacked.

"It wasn't just misspeaking. That was a whole big concept that was erroneous," DL said of Akin's words and his subsequent explanation for the gaffe.

"I think the unseen danger here is when politicians spout off these things to get whatever it is they're trying to get, (that) there are thousands of people they can be hurting," DL said.

"I pray for peace and healing to all of us who have lived through rape. And I pray that those who choose to work publicly on either side of the abortion issue be thoughtful and respectful, and maybe a little reflective before choosing their words," DL said.