Rape Conception Conversation Over Breakfast: Inadvisable

A U.S. Congressman points out that stress affects ovulation. But it's moot in rape discussion.

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GeraldHerbert/AP

Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, an obstetrician since 1975, appears to have woken up this morning and decided that his political career was going a little too smoothly. So he resurrected the watershed "legitimate rape" remarks of former Representative Todd Akin (RIP?) this morning at the Smyrna Area Council of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Indeed, breakfast.

Gingrey:

[Akin] said that in a situation of rape, of a legitimate rape, a woman's body has a way of shutting down so the pregnancy would not occur. He's partly right on that. ... I've delivered lots of babies, and I know about these things. It is true. We tell infertile couples all the time that are having trouble conceiving because of the woman not ovulating, 'Just relax. Drink a glass of wine. And don't be so tense and uptight because all that adrenaline can cause you not to ovulate.' So he was partially right wasn't he?

The answer is that there are as many as 32,000 cases of rape-related pregnancy annually in the United States. And that is pretty much the beginning and end of this discussion. 

Continuing to dissect Akin's comments to see if we can find a semblance of reason in them -- whether he was "partially right" -- is of no practical consequence. Whether the unconscionable physiologic stress of having endured rape does lead to some traumatic response that results in miscarriages (or lack of conception) in some instances -- how does that help us in any way? 

Stress affects ovulation and fertility, that's true. Stress affects everything about how our bodies work. But it's irrelevant to rape discussion. Todd Akin apologists are going to lose every time on this one. And, importantly, it takes away from what could be productive discussion about rape prevention. 

Despite the indignation they will elicit, the fundamentals of Gingrey's remarks are in line with mainstream medical physiology -- especially in his inclusion of this caveat, which actually directly counters the most contentious part of Akin's comment:

But the fact that a woman may have already ovulated 12 hours before she is raped, you're not going to prevent a pregnancy there by a woman's body shutting anything down because the horse has already left the barn, so to speak.

True true. Though maybe not the best time for the ovary-barn analogy.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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