Should Todd Akin be forgiven?

Aug 22, 2012

Missouri Rep. Todd Akin said Tuesday that he was not exiting the Senate race even as he is losing support from party leaders including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney who called on him to drop out. The embattled Senate candidate asked voters to forgive him for the comments about rape and abortion.

Does he deserve to be forgiven? If forgiven, should he remain in the race as he argues he should? Does forgiveness imply forgetfulness? Can one forgive a bad act and still take it into account in future encounters?

Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 11 a.m. ET about this topic. Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

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Todd Akin is digging in and pulling out all the stops in doing so.  Does he deserve our forgiveness?  Should that have any bearing on his staying in the race?


Does forgiveness demnad forgetfulness?  How do you know when it's time to forgive anyone?  Join us as we explore these and other ethical questions in the news swirling around Todd Akin, his theories about rape and conception, and his race for the Senate.


Let's go!


Yes we should forgive him, but that doesn't mean he should be in the U.S. Senate. He also shouldn't be on a science and technology committee in Congress. Clearly, he has no expertise in anything that requires a brain.

Interesting.  Even though I believe that there is no such thing as an inherently unforgiveable trnasgression, I have mixed feeling about how much I trust his apology.  Or, to be more specific, I trust that he meant no harm because I think that Rep. Akin is a decent guy, but don't trust that he really understand what he said that was so wrong. 


That he has served on the science committee is particulalry dusturbing, though my guess is that were we to examine the ideas of many congress people in relation to the the expertise needed to serve on many of the standing committees, we might be more than a little concerned.  Do other members hold views as troubling as Akin's?  Hard to know, but nothing surprises me anymore.  Upsets?  yes.  Surprises?  Not so much.

My problem with his statement is not so much about "forcible" rape as much as it is with his assertion that women have mystical powers to naturally stop a pregnancy due to rape. This is not the first time we've heard this nonsense, and it won't be the last. These are the comments we need to refute very publicly with all available facts. Representative Akin should become the poster child for why we need some form of sex education in this country.

I agree.  the "forcible rape" thing is disagreeable, but the profound ignorance revealed by the "inability to conceive" theory is truly disturbing.  I do think I understand it though.  Let me explain, and please note, I said explain, NOT excuse.


I think that all decent people who confront a contradiction between what is for them a non-negotiable doctrine and their own intuitive sense of human decency, feel compelled to resolve the conflict, and that is the real genesis of the the theory.  In this case, the sense that it is wrong to force a woman to carry a baby conceived out of rape, conflicts with the "no exceptions" approach to abortion.  What to do?  Insist that were conception to have occured, there must have been no rape, thereby resolving the ethical dilmna.


This is actually a great moment to remind ourselves that we can view these conflicts with a compassionate eye, even as we take a stand against allowing them to determine public policy.

IMO, Akin hasn't demonstrated any remorse, just regret that he did himself political damage. Nor has he shown that he's been enlightened in any way and is now reexamining his attitudes toward women. My question to you as an ethicist: is it wrong to expect contrition or some commitment to change before we extend forgiveness? Or should our forgiveness be "pure," if you will, and not expect anything from the offender? Personally, I'm not inclined to forgive Akin until he shows me he's deserving and offers more than words to prove it.

I believe in differentiating between forgiveness and atonement.  The former can be offered regardless of the offenders state of mind, but it seems that attaining the latter, and the reunification implied by the term at-one-ment, requires that offender to demonstrate a deeper understanding of what they did that what wrong, and the ability to do better when confronted by the same situation.

There is no forgiveness for a false apology. He has said several times that he made a mistake on one word in one sentence. The word is "legitimate". He has said that the word "forcible" should have been used. In other words, he believes that women do not get pregnant from forcible rape. This is an evil belief, and one which will be used to harm women. No forgiveness.

Why is his apology "false"?  Because it doesn't satisfy you and me?  I think we need to be careful here.  One can be sincere, yet wrong.  I think that appreciating that difference is what allows us to open ourselves to other people without backing away from confronting them when they say hurtful or dangererous things.

I'm a counselor and have worked with many women who have been victims of various forms of child abuse and those who have been victimized in adult relationships. In my experience, having been told that they 'have to forgive' the person who hurt them was a real stumbling block to healing from the experiences. Working on 'letting go' of the anger that only hurt them was a healthier approach. The victim could make a difference for herself without needing the abuser to express regrets. I suppose people can say that they can work on not feeling anger toward Todd Akin for his insensitive (to say the least) remarks, but people can also choose to not have anything to do with him in the future. The concept of forgiveness has many gray areas that may differ from person to person.

As you wisely point out, forgiveness varies from person to person.  I find that what you call letting go of the anger is a part of forgiveness and one which does not depend on the wrong-doer having a change of heart.  It's why I distinguish between forgivenss which is a gift we can offer freely, and atonement which does have to be earned in some way.


I also want to hold out the option that some people may want to hold on to their anger, at least for a while, and that that too can be healthy -- at least for some people for some period of time.  If we take seriously your claim about this all varying from person to person, then anger too has to be allowed.

Rabbi, with all due respect, who cares if he is forgiven or not? The question is whether such an ignorant person should serve in the US Senate. Forget that he has somehow made it to the House already.

why is it that people use the term "with all due respect" right before they make it pretty clear that they have little or none?  That said, I want to respond to your important question.


The forgivenss issue matters for two reasons.  First, Mr. Akin put the concept in play in a series of ads and interviews, claiming that voters should forgive him and be able to support him, were they to do so.  How forgiveness is used is now an issue in the debate about his candidacy, especially for a voting public such as ours, whcih beleives in forgiveness.


Second,  forgiveness is an often used and sometimes abused notion which deserves exploration since we all need some times, and many of us need it often.  How we seek it, offer it, and allow it to shape our decision making is always relevent.

Since the GOP platform calls for banning abortion, in all cases, how is this different from Akin? He only stated what they are all really thinking! "Real" rape - i.e., "forcible" rape, somebody tell me the difference please - isn't this what they are all really thinking? He just SAID it! Now is an excellent time for this to come out, as the GOP pretends to be all about women and peace and togetherness. Instead of calling for him to resign, if they were not hypocritical, they'd embrace his openess and celebrate it!

I appreciate the political angling, but your position is a bit too easy.  For starters, there are often gaps between party platforms and what politicians are prepared to advance as policy when elected.  In fact, Mitt Romney advocates for exceptions even though the GOP platform does not.  That diversity, in any party, is healthy, and exists among Democrats as well.


Second, the junk science for which Mr. Akin advocated is NOT the belief of all Republicansd, or even the most ardent foes of abortion.  In fact, the real problem with what Akin said is his stubborn embrace of stupid ideas.  Decent people can and will disagree a bout abortion, but when they do do so based on fact, a conversation is possible.  When weird fantasy theories come into play, it's hard to see how anyone can or should be taken seriously.

I don't believe he committed a bad act. He simply revealed what he believes about women's bodies and rape. He's asking more for forgetfulness than forgiveness.

Well, he asked to be forgiven, and I am always in favor of at least trying to find some basis for that.  But, forgetfulness is another matter altogetehr, and for that to happen, he has a long way to go.  I think even most steadfast conservatives know that, which is why almost all have called for his resignation from the race.

I'm concerned that focusing on forgiveness obscures the deeper moral issues about how Akin views gender roles. From his other statements over the years, it's reasonable to infer that he sees something wrong with women not wanting to be mothers, whether or not they have abortions. He seems to be part of a broader political mindset of seeing women as having no purpose other than to bear and raise children, treating female sexuality as shameful. That might explain the opposition to not just contraception and sex education, but even the fainting-couch reaction when female legislators in Michigan use clinical terms for their genitalia. Am I connecting too many dots here, or are my inferences valid?

I don;t know if you are connecting too many dots or not, though I think your comment about the "deeper moral issues" reveals a desire to make a case against him in ways that might not be so helpful. 


While I appreciate the desire to package Akin in a certain way that might make working against him easier, it seems that the best approach is to take on each issue as it comes.  In fact, I wish both sides would do that instead of creating bogey men who come to represent all that they opposes.  once that happens, it's hard to get anythign accomplished because those with whom we disagree have become symbols of all with whcih we disagree and this is going to be hard to overcome.

No matter what he says now, Todd Akin clearly believed (as of Saturday when the interview was taped) that women who are being raped are unlikely to get pregnant. Why should he be forgiven for saying what he believes?

He should be forgiven, if one thinks that he should be, because he genuinely feels bad for having caused others pain.  The forgiveness granted is simply a way of allowing ourselves to stop being so enraged, especially as being so, accomplsishes so little.  If you are asking why people should forget the substance of what he said, they should not, at least not until he makes a far more careful disclosure about why he thinks what he said was wrong.

I might forgive Akin if he goes further. He should disown last year's attempt to narrow the Hyde Amendment's definition of rape. He should admit that he's wrong when he claims that women lie to get abortions. And he should accept that there's no scientific basis for claiming that women can't get pregnant from rape.

Only the last of your demands is a matter of fact.  The others are, respectively, matters of policy and subject to debate.  I am not saying that I side with Akin on either, but the distinction is important unless your willingness to forgive hinges on your being in total agreement with those you are willing to forgive.  That strikes me as a rather unhelpful model of forgiveness in that it requires others to become like us in order to forgive them.  Isn't that kind of what Akin and his supporters demand from those who disagree with them?

Admittedly, I did not know of him before this kerfuffle, however, by all indications he is true to his beliefs, the beliefs of his base and not beholden to the Republican party. I guess I am saying that I'm not sure "forgiveness" is required. Why not just let people in the district he represents dictate should he remain in office? His views strike me as abhorrent, but I suspect he is not the only one of this belief, he just said it publicly. Also, by forgiveness, do you mean "stay in office and never speak of this again"?

I think that Mr. Akin would like us to use your suggested definition of forgiveness, though I appreciate that it might not be one you would use.  For my part, I would NOT use that definiton because it conflates forgiveness with forgetfulness, which I think is unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.


Forgiveness, as I understand it, is a gift offered as part of the initial process by which reconciliation can be achieved, but beofre it is, other things need to happen as well, including proof that when confronted with the same oppotunity to hurt or offend, the wrong-doer will take a different course.  It does not seem that is the case with Mr. Akin, whcih is why I believe that forgiveness is desiraeble but forgetfullness is not.

My Mom used to have a sign on the wall when I was growing up. "Be Sure Brain is Engaged Before Putting Mouth in Gear! This wasn't a simple typo, or mis-speak. It a belief that SOME ignorant people have that a woman can't get pregnant if she is raped. Aparently Mr. Akin believes this LIE and is trying to backpedal! Forgiveness? Heck NO!

It's not entirely clear if he still beleives this weird and ugly theory, but it seems that he would still like to, and that is problematic for sure.  That said, I am not sure that it is a lie -- an intentional misrepresntation of the truth -- which is what makes it especially disturbing.


Were it simply a lie, it would actually be easier to confront.  the challenge here, and the part that is especially disturbing for someone in public office, is that the theory is clearly a coping mechanism meant to reconcile a religious belief with science in a way that makes the latter totally subservient to the former.  While I beleive that faith can inform our understanding of policy, it must never be used to coerce others.  We lose that committment, we lose a big part of what makes America great.

Sure, Akin should be forgiven. Everyone should be allowed to apologize, even in our gotcha Internet era. His party is right to hold his feet to the fire. Let the Missouri voters decide.

I agree, as long as teh forgiveness granted does not mean that people should simply ignore the fact that a sitting public official subscribed to junk science and failed to recognize the enormous pain that doing so can cause.  People can be as pro-life/anti-choice as they want to be, but when din so is based on ignoring the real costs of that position, they are being grossly irresponsible. 


The same can be said for Pro-choice folks, but exploring that is for another time.

What is there to forgive? Unless I am really misunderstanding the concept of forgiveness. He is a person, entitled to his opinion. He can state his opinion. The rest of us can either reject his thinking or go along with it. Looks like voters in MO will have that chance. What concerns me is his "apology", which doesn't explain his thinking further, but seems to be concerned only with his choice of words. I am enjoying the rest of the GOP trying to distance themselves, meanwhile their draconian party platform is coming front and center in the midst of Akins 'mistake'. Maybe not so much of a "mistake", but a prequel to the GOP convention.

To be fair to Akin, there are two things for which he has sought forgiveness, one of them more clearly than the other.  He has sought forgiveness for using owrds which hurt people, and it is to his credit that he does so.  Less clear however is his asking for forgiveness for holding to beliefs that have no basis in fact. 


I think that on the basis of the first, one can acknowledge the man's decency and engage him on the issues.  On the basis of the second, one cannot simply assumed that he has turned over a new leaf and is committed to to a fact-based approach in his decision making processes.

Not a comment on this week's topic, just a thank you. I really enjoy your columns and weekly chats. I feel that I learn something every time I read your responses. Your intelligent answers are both logical and caring. I haven't been able to attend worship as regularly as I would like, but your writings help to keep me inspired to lead a Godly life. Thank you!

Thank YOU!  I could not ask for kinder words to be shared and deeply appreciate that you did so.  While regular worship IS a part of my life, the implemetning of those values with compassion and respect for others is the real test of my work, and why I actually love this forum.  Thanks for being a part of it.

I really appreciate your discussions, especially this one. You have given me much to think about on the subject of forgetfulness in my own, personal life.

You got it!  The interesting thing is how our most deeply held values can help us in all areas of life, including public life, and how the questions which arise in public life and popular culture can help us think about and reconnect to those values.   That's what this is all about and I appreciate that you reminded us all of that.

Well, time is at hand and my hands are tired, but what a great hour!  Your questions and comments are always great, but today was off the charts!!


Don't forget that we can continue this conversation if you find me on facebook and follow me onm twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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