A Canard That Will Not Die: 'Legitimate Rape' Doesn't Cause Pregnancy

Republicans have been getting in trouble for asserting this since at least 1988 -- but anti-abortion politicians keep hauling out this old idea for a reason.

Here we go again. Trotting out the contemporary equivalent of the early American belief that only witches float, Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, told a local Missouri station in an interview that "legitimate rape" does not lead to pregnancy.

"First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare," Akin said in an interview with KTVI-TV that caused a furor online Sunday afternoon after being posted on TPM. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Akin's comments came during a discussion of his hardline stand against permitting legal abortions for rape victims. "I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child," he said.

McCaskill quickly rebuked him -- "As a woman & former prosecutor who handled 100s of rape cases, I'm stunned by Rep. Akin's comments about victims this AM," she tweeted -- and Republican operatives on Twitter joined in the chorus decrying his remarks and speculating that he would need to be pulled from the race if the GOP wanted to continue to have any shot at taking her seat. Akin, who had been leading in polls, issued a lengthy statement explaining that he "misspoke."

The thing is, his comments were hardly some kind never-before-heard gaffe. Arguments like his have cropped up again and again on the right over the past quarter century and the idea that trauma is a form of birth control continues to be promulgated by anti-abortion forces that seek to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The push for a no-exceptions anti-abortion policy has for decades gone hand in hand with efforts to downplay the frequency with which rape- or incest-related pregnancies occur, and even to deny that they happen, at all. In other words, it's not just Akin singing this tune.

Take Christian Life Resources, an educational site, for example. It reprints an 1999 article on the topic that seeks to make the same distinction between categories of rape as did Akin, and for the same reason. Wrote John C. Willke -- a physician who in the 1980s and early 1990s was president of the National Right to Life Committee -- in the piece, originally published in Life Issues Connector:

When pro-lifers speak of rape pregnancies, we should commonly use the phrase "forcible rape" or "assault rape," for that specifies what we're talking about. Rape can also be statutory. Depending upon your state law, statutory rape can be consensual, but we're not addressing that here .... Assault rape pregnancies are extremely rare.

.... What is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that's physical 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, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy. So what further percentage reduction in pregnancy will this cause? No one knows, but this factor certainly cuts this last figure by at least 50 percent and probably more.

An edited version of Willke's article appears on the website of Physicians for Life group under the headline, "Assault Rape Pregnancies Are Rare." The most medically ignorant paragraphs have been excised from this version of the story, though the headline has been strengthened to make the point plain.

The canard had been floating around the right long before Willke wrote his piece. In 1995, 71-year-old North Carolina state Rep. Henry Aldridge gained national notoriety after telling the N.C. House Appropriations Committee, "The facts show that people who are raped -- who are truly raped -- the juices don't flow, the body functions don't work and they don't get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever."

His argument came during a debate over "a proposal to eliminate a state abortion fund for poor women," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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