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Joanna Weiss

Todd Akin should read more Cosmopolitan

Ah, politics. Here’s one thing you can count on: As much as we talk about budgets and deficits and distant wars and foreign affairs, everything eventually comes back to the female reproductive system.

Hence the incredible, unavoidable quote from Missouri Representative Todd Akin, who won last Tuesday’s GOP primary for a US Senate seat. Asked whether he opposed abortion even in the case of rape, Akin declared, on St. Louis’s KTVI-TV, that “from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

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It’s hard to parse how many things are wrong with this statement. Akin has been offering vague apologies for the better part of a day, and as of Monday night national Republicans were trying to force him out of the race. But his gaffe lives on, and it poses a deep, disturbing question: Could this really be an American adult’s understanding of how the human body works? And if so, what does that say about our prospects for health care reform? Or science education?

Maybe Akin ought to pick up a copy of Cosmopolitan.

I’m only half joking. Cosmo has been on everyone’s mind since the death of controversial editor Helen Gurley Brown, and there has been a fair amount of retrospective sneering over Brown’s mixed legacy — her early apologies for adultery, her later apologies for sexual harassment, her championing of casual sex.

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But her magazine has remained fabulously popular for a reason. In a country where ideas about women and sex clearly cover a broad continuum, Cosmo remains a trusted source of advice about women’s bodies. September’s issue contains the expected share of sex tips, but also a three-page story about the medical reasons why women miss their periods.

And even in Brown’s earliest days at the helm, Cosmo acknowledged that good sex and responsible sex are two sides of the same coin. Brown’s very first Cosmopolitan cover, in 1965, called the birth control pill “the new pill that makes women more responsive” — because when you’re not worried about getting pregnant, you can relax.

To be fair, Akin probably knows more than he lets on about female anatomy; in that TV interview Sunday, he also said he’d allow abortion in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, since “the child doesn’t have a chance but will soon kill the mother. . . . in those kinds of situations you optimize life.” (On behalf of women in America: Thanks.)

But when it comes to the abortion debate, emotion often overshadows fact. And the facts about abortion are often both sad and instructive. Last night, the Guttmacher Institute released a study of women who had abortions in 2008. More than half, it turns out, had experienced major disruptions in their lives, ranging from job losses to breakups, trouble paying rent, or domestic violence. The upheavals, they reported, interfered with contraception — lose a job and you lose your health insurance; move and you might need a new doctor — and led them to doubt the circumstances in which they’d be raising a child.

Good people can disagree about the choices they made. But the study suggests that those choices often weren’t cavalier. And they’re a reminder that women face pregnancy in the context of full and complicated lives. That’s the biggest problem with Akin’s comments: They bespeak a lack of respect and empathy for women, a view that, once a woman becomes pregnant, she becomes a gestation chamber and nothing else. This is why abortion remains such a litmus-test issue, even for women who are ambivalent about abortion itself.

Likewise, it’s empathy, in large part, that has made Cosmo so important to so many women. The tone isn’t moralistic or didactic; it’s confidential and direct. Many teens and young women liken women’s magazines “to an aunt or a close friend, and they say they often find them trustworthy and healthy,” said Janna Kim, a psychology professor at California State University at Fullerton, who has conducted studies of Cosmo readers.

“A lot of young women are still turning to these magazines to learn about themselves, and the world,” Kim told me in an e-mail. They’ll get more information from a glossy magazine than from a would-be senator who chooses to see the world in black and white.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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