Over the weekend, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) ignited a firestorm of criticism when he said that in cases of "legitimate rape" women's bodies can naturally prevent pregnancy. If the rape is legitimate, he said, " the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," and therefore we should not support abortion even in cases of rape. This is why, according to Akin, that pregnancy from rape "from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare."
Silly me, if I were a woman I suppose I would know these facts. But not being one, and having never heard this bit of medical knowledge before, I decided to look at what science has to say about this. After all, Rep. Akin, who is challenging Senator Claire McCaskill, sits on the House Science, Space & Technology Committee. If he says something like this as one of our nation's leaders, he must have the inside scoop. If he's on the science committee we have to trust what he says about science issues.
It turns out, though, that the science says no such thing. In fact, science suggests that a woman's chance of getting pregnant if raped, based only on the reported cases of rape, is about 8 percent, or likely about twice as high as if a woman has consensual sex. In actuality, these numbers are likely low, because rape is significantly under reported, but we don't know by how much.
So if the science doesn't seem to support this, what is Rep. Akin using as the basis for his understanding? Because, give the man credit, he is on the Science Committee. He must be basing his conclusions on something. It turns out the advocacy group Physicians for Life posts this stuff on their website. First, they say,
let's define the term 'rape.' We should use the phrase 'forced rape' or 'assault rape' for that specifies what we're talking about. Rape can also be statutory. Depending upon your state law, statutory rape is intercourse with a girl under a certain age, often 16. Statutory rape can be consensual, but it is still statutory rape. Another category is 'date rape.' For some reason, this is supposed to be different, but, forced rape is still rape, regardless of whether it occurs on a date or behind the bushes. If a college woman is raped on a date, she should report it to the police and pursue charges. Further, she should undergo a medical examination and treatment, just as she would in the aftermath of an assault rape. It is not a separate category.
This is likely where Akin got his sense that some rapes are "legitimate," ie "forced," while others, presumably such as statutory rape and date rape, are not. The site then says:
Assault rape pregnancies are extremely rare... How many forced rapes result in a pregnancy?... There have been some studies.
This appears to be where Akin got the sense that "from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare." But as we've seen, the science suggests just the opposite: it's about twice as likely. The Physicians for Life site identifies three studies, but when you look, only one study is actually original research, about sexual dysfunction in rapists. It is from 1977, and is outdated. It also doesn't support the claim that pregnancies from rape are "extremely rare." This appears to be pure propaganda.
Physicians for Life goes on to identify
one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that's psychic trauma. Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. 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, and implantation.
But the studies on the site, the freshest one of which dates from 1981 and is not original research, do not support this position, and the actual science we know of, as I said, shows just the opposite: women are about twice as likely to become pregnant from rape. We don't know why. It's possible that rapists somehow select women who are more fertile at that time.
So it appears that Rep. Akin is trusting a special interest group's propaganda site, and not actual science, which is troubling, since he serves on the Science Committee. Physicians for Life, you might recall, also puts forth the scientifically unsupported idea that abortions cause breast cancer -- a "fact" that was placed on the National Cancer Institute's website during the Bush administration.
As Justine Larbalestier points out, this thinking has ancient roots. From Thomas Laqueur's book Making Sex:
Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that "without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place." Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that "if some women who were forced to have intercourse conceived... the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve," and no one before the second half of the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century question the physiological basis of this judgement. The 1756 edition of Burn's Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that "a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent." It does, however, go on to point out that as matter of law, if not of biology, this doctrine is dubious. Another writer argued that pregnancy ought to be taken as proof of acquiescence since the fear, terror, and aversion that accompany a true rape would prevent an orgasm from occurring and thus make conception unlikely.
It makes sense that Akin's asinine comment has its roots in the ignorance of mid-eighteenth-century thinking. After all, his House website slogan is "Timeless Principles for Today's Challenges."
Instead of retaining fixed, timeless views, perhaps Mr. Akin should consider updating them as knowledge from science accumulates. Isn't that his job, on the House Science Committee of the world's leading science nation?
Shawn Lawrence Otto is an author and science advocate. He is cofounder and CEO of ScienceDebate.org. Get his new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,"One of the most important books written in America in the last decade." Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. He is also a screenwriter and coproducer of the movie House of Sand and Fog. Visit him at http://www.shawnotto.com. Like him on Facebook. Join ScienceDebate.org to get the presidential candidates to debate science.
9:00PM PT Update: It seems I was right. Earlier today, Bryan Fischer went on the air with this defense of Todd Akin, quoting almost verbatim from the Physicians for Life website:
Timeless principles, indeed.