Todd Akin and Ancient Rome

I meant to post this one earlier, but, as often, it was lost in my email box … Classicist Lauren Caldwell (Wesleyan U) comments on a certain American politician’s medical claims in the Hartford Courant:

Students in my course on ancient medicine assume — often rightly — that the writings of Soranus of Ephesus, an eminent physician of the Roman Empire who wrote in the second century A.D., will have little in common with modern ideas and conversations about health. But that was before Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri offered his thoughts on women’s ability to control reproduction.

Akin, in a recent interview, brought ideas about women’s health from 2,000 years ago roaring back into view.

“From what I understand from doctors,” Rep. Akin said with a comment that created a political storm, in instances of “legitimate rape” women can keep themselves from becoming pregnant. Akin referred obliquely to having heard this remarkable medical information from unnamed experts. (He subsequently went to some lengths to take back his theory.)

Perhaps Rep. Akin had been consulting “Gynecology” by Soranus, who, like other Greco-Roman physicians, believed a woman could control what happened at conception. Like Rep. Akin, Soranus was guided by a belief that the goal of sexual activity is not recreation but procreation — a stance that made sense to the Roman male aristocrats who were Soranus’ audience, as it does to a socially conservative audience today.

In “Gynecology,” Soranus wrote to an audience of males interested in enhancing their wives’ ability to provide them with offspring. One strategy for success was to condition a woman’s body, and mind, during intercourse.

Soranus prescribes that “women must be sober during coitus because in drunkenness the soul becomes the victim of strange fantasies,” and the fetus will come to resemble the mother. For example, he notes, “some women, imagining monkeys during intercourse, have borne children who look like monkeys.”

For a Roman male aristocrat of the second century (a period known, incidentally, for its relative peace and prosperity), worries about the physical characteristics of offspring stemmed not primarily from concerns about birth defects or the sanctity of life beginning at conception — for embryology was not well understood — but from the uncertainties of paternity in a world that had no DNA testing. If a male member of the elite sought advice for ensuring that his wife was having his child and no one else’s, Roman physicians, often dependent on wealthy patrons for their livelihood, were ready to oblige by prescribing conduct that might produce a child who physically resembled his father.

Such concerns seem remote from the social and sexual lives of American women today. More women than men are enrolled on college campuses, preparing for careers. Many women are childless by choice, as confirmed by the recent dip in the fertility rate in the U.S. to 1.9 children per woman, according to the Economist.

Yet our own national political debate reveals that a contingent of Americans take a position not so different from that of Soranus’ audience of Roman male aristocrats: They perceive an urgent need to control the reproductive behavior of women. A statement like Todd Akin’s marshals medical “facts” that are about as credible as those put forward by a predecessor of Soranus, the unknown author of the “Diseases of Women,” who maintained that women’s wombs wandered in their bodies, ready to suffocate them at any moment.

The next time I teach my course, I will be able to bring in the example of Rep. Akin to illustrate the ways in which “medical understanding” continues to be used with the aim of social control. I will do so with mixed emotions. On one hand, as an instructor, I am always pleased to find a modern parallel that provides an entry point for my students into the world of Greco-Roman writers such as Soranus. On the other hand, I wish it were a little more difficult to find a parallel that demonstrates so vividly how the use of “medical authority” to justify limitations on women’s choices has persisted through the centuries.

… personally, I think Dr Caldwell gives the U.S. Rep too much credit …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s