Originally published on Saturday 8-25-2012 at 8:55 pm CDT. Edited for clarity at 7:22 pm CDT 8-26-2012.
An Analysis: The Common Source That Binds "Forcible" "Legitimate" Rape With Metzitzah B'peh
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s 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 that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
Akin's remarks sparked a national firestorm of disapproval, including calls from Republicans for him to drop out of the race for US Senate.
Akin apologized for what he called his "language," but he refused to leave the race.
He also garnered support from pro-life groups and politicians who saw little or nothing wrong in his original remarks, including former Republican presidential candidate Mike Hukabee.
The idea that a woman could not conceive from a "legitimate" rape – usually defined as a forced sexual encounter in which the woman actively resists – is based on an ancient Roman-Greek physician's understanding of human reproduction.
Galen of Pergamon (129 CE – circa 200 CE) believed that both men and women emitted "seed" on orgasm, and that without a woman's orgasm, no "seed" was emitted by her. Therefore, without a woman's orgasm, conception could not occur.
From this concept, which was widely accepted for more than 1900 years, grew the idea that if a woman conceived from what she said was a rape, she must be lying.
Courts would come to believe that if a woman was "legitimately" raped, she would not get pregnant. (See, for example, The Encyclopedia of Rape, page 155.)
That idea was enshrined in common law in many localities, and was used to decide issues of paternity and adultery well into the early part of the 20th century, even in parts of the US.
That is the ultimate origin of the 'science' that forms the basis for at least one recent bill in the US House of Representatives which banned abortion but granted an exception from that ban to women who had been "legitimately" "forcibly" raped.
The author of that bill?
Rep. Akin. A cosponsor? Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican's candidate for vice president.
In reality, the human reproductive system does not work the way Galen thought it did. His ideas on the subject are anachronistic, and conclusions like Akin's drawn from them are demonstrably false.
There is another idea of Galen's that, while anachronistic and demonstrably false, has been in the news lately because a group of people want an unsafe practice based on it to be protected by New York State law.
The practice is metzitzah b'peh (MBP), the direct mouth-to-bleeding-penis-suction done primarily by hasidic mohels immediately after the circumcision cuts are made, but that was once done by all mohels to all babies undergoing the ritual.
The Mishna (codified circa 200 CE – just after Galen, the greatest physician of that era, died) mentions the practice as a health measure done to protect the baby, but doesn't explain why. It also does not specify that the suction, or drawing out, be done by mouth. The Rambam, Maimonides, writes in the Mishne Torah that, “One draws out the milah until the blood comes out of the distant places, so that no danger shall prevail."
In his journal article on metzitzah b’peh, Mezizah be-Peh: Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?, published in Hakirah several years ago, Shlomo Sprecher quotes The Healing Hand—Man and Wound in the Ancient World by Guido Majno to explain why Maimonides and the authors of the Mishna thought metzitzah was a necessary health measure:
The Greek physicians studied disease primarily by giving it a lot of thought [as opposed to observation]. The result was an overall, synthetic, but wholly imaginary theory of disease, in which the basic disturbance, and therefore the treatment, was always of the same kind, even in the case of a wound. The reasoning went about as follows. In nature everything is balanced. “Too much” or “too little” causes an imbalance, which is disease. The actual components of the body that may go out of balance are the celebrated four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. In the normal body these humors are harmoniously mixed; disease ensues if they are mixed in the wrong proportions, or if they become unmixed…[A]ny pain or lump could be explained as a “distemper” or disharmony of the blend… [B]lood was regarded as the worst offender, because it was liable to spill out easily and therefore to “stagnate.” This was supposed to be dangerous, because one of the key propositions in Greek medicine maintained that stagnating blood will decay…and in decaying, it might even become pus…the parts around the wound will develop spasms, attract blood, become soaked with it, and decay. The beauty of this thought (corruption originates around the wound), however wrong it may sound today, is that it shows how the Greeks struggled to explain the mechanism of what we call infection—or in their terms, corruption. They could have no idea that the cause was something [micro-organisms] deposited on the surface of the wound. Therefore, using their principle that “stagnating blood decays,” they rationalized that the trouble had to arise all around the wound: blood was attracted there, and turned into pus. This thought is stated or hinted at may times in the Collection [Hippocratic Corpus]; for instance, “all wounds draw their inflammation and swelling from the surrounding parts, because of the blood flowing into them. In every recent wound …it is expedient to cause blood to flow from it abundantly, for thus will the wound and the adjacent parts be less attacked with inflammation …when the blood flows they become drier and less in size, as being thus dried up. Indeed what prevents the healing…is the decay of the blood.”
Sprecher goes on to point out that “this doctrine, originally formulated by Hippocrates [(circa 460 BCE – circa 370 BCE)] and his disciples, received an enormous boost through its enthusiastic endorsement by the great second-century Alexandrian physician Galen, whose works became synonymous with the practice of medicine for at least fifteen centuries.”
This theory popularized by Galen is also an anachronism. It is demonstrably false.
Even so, hasidic and many other haredi rabbis insist on following rabbinic decisions based on it.
Akin – whose understanding of rape and conception is also based on 1800 year old medical theory popularized by Galen – is an Evangelical and an ordained minister.
Akin's understanding of "legitimate" "forcible" rape is endorsed by Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan and by large swaths of the pro-life movement, just as Galen's understanding of "bodily humors" and "blood stagnation" is endorsed (unwittingly, perhaps) by hasidic and haredi rabbis.
The common thread between the two groups is more than just a bizarre fealty to 1800-year-old disproved medical theory.
The common threads are also fundamentalism, disdain for modern science, and looking at the world through magical non-linear thinking rather than through logic and empirical truth.