Rep. Todd Akin is wrong about rape and pregnancy, but he’s not alone

August 20, 2012

Rep. Todd Akin (Jeff Roberson | AP)

Rep. Todd Akin, Missouri's Republican Senate nominee, caused a public outcry Sunday when he told a local television station that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy.

"First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare," Akin, the Republican Senate nominee in Missouri, said. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Akin later issued an apology, saying he "misspoke" when he made an "off-the-cuff" remark. Empirical evidence suggests that he is indeed wrong: Research published in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests over 30,000 pregnancies result from rape annually. "Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency," the trio of researchers from the University of South Carolina concluded. "It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies."

A separate 2001 study - which used a sample of 405 rape victims between ages 12 and 45 - found that 6.4 percent became pregnant.

But while Akin is wrong in his assertion about rape and pregnancy, he certainly isn't alone. His remarks tapped into a strain of thinking that dates back to at least the 1980s, with anti-abortion politicians from Pennsylvania to Arkansas making the case that the trauma of rape can often prevent pregnancy. The argument does not come up frequently, but when it does, it nearly always leads to political controversy.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephen Freind (R) was an ardent abortion opponent. He authored legislation that included one of the the nation's first abortion waiting periods, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

He also looks to be the first legislator to make the argument that rape prevents pregnancy,  arguing in the late 1980s that the odds of a pregnancy resulting from rape were "one in millions and millions and millions."

His explanation? The trauma of rape causes women to "secrete a certain secretion which has the tendency to kill sperm." Reproductive health experts immediately denounced those remarks. One told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Boy, if I could find out what that [secretion] was, I'd use it as a contraceptive."

The argument was dormant for about a decade, until the late 1990s. That's when a North Carolina legislator, whom Garance Franke-Ruta points to, extended the argument to question whether there should actually be a rape exception from abortion restrictions, given that "The facts show that people who are raped - truly raped - the juices don't flow."

Arkansas politician Fay Boozman followed up during during his 1998 Senate campaign by arguing that "fear-induced hormonal changes could block a rape victim's ability to conceive." Those remarks lead to a backlash when then-Gov. Mike Huckabee tapped Boozman to run the state's health department.

The argument was most recently - and perhaps most fully - articulated by National Right to Life president John Wilke in a 1999 essay titled "Rape Pregnancies Are Rare." Wilke made a pretty similar case to Akin: That the "physical trauma" of rape has a way of preventing pregnancy.

"To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones," Wilke wrote. "There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy."

The scientific evidence for this proposition is, unsurprisingly, shaky. Freind later backed off his theory about secretions, switching to an argument that rape would instead "delay, disrupt or prohibit ovulation by preventing the release of hormone-triggering factors."

Wilke, the former Right to Life president, does not cite any evidence in his essay; "no one knows," he says of the impact. That does not stop him from estimating that the physical trauma of rape "certainly cuts this last figure by at least 50 percent and probably more."

Why do these arguments come up again and again, even if the scientific evidence - and public opinion - is clearly not in their favor? Usually, they come from legislators looking to push abortion regulations that tighten the constitutionally-required exceptions for cases of rape and incest.

That's what Friend was looking for back in 1988. And that's what Akin has pushed for in the House of Representatives. He was among the 227 co-sponsors of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.)

That legislation, as initially written, who have prohibited federal funding for abortion except in cases of incest or "forcible rape." That last term quickly-turned heads: It had the potential to significantly curtail Medicaid's ability to pay for an abortion for certain rape victims. Those who faced a statutory rape, where one party was too young to consent, could be left out.

That language was, much like Akin's Sunday remarks, walked back in the face of public outcry. The legislation was revised within days to include an exception for all rape victims.

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