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

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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.

In 1980, attorney James Leon Holmes wrote, in a letter arguing for a constitutional ban on abortion, "Concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami."

He later apologized for his comment and was successfully nominated to a federal judgeship by George W. Bush in 2004, the inside-Washington controversy over his remarks notwithstanding. Today he serves as the chief judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas.

In Pennsylvania, Republican state Rep. Stephen Freind asserted in 1988 that women rarely get pregnant from rape, because violent attacks cause temporary infertility. Reported the Philadelphia Daily News:

The odds that a woman who is raped will get pregnant are "one in millions and millions and millions," said state Rep. Stephen Freind, R-Delaware County, the Legislature's leading abortion foe.

The reason, Freind said, is that the traumatic experience of rape causes a woman to "secrete a certain secretion" that tends to kill sperm.

(A hat tip to BuzzFeed's great Anna North for digging up the Holmes and Freind examples earlier this year.)

Efforts to outlaw abortion and legislatively narrow the definition of rape to only the most violent assaults go hand in hand, as abortion opponents believe rape exceptions to abortion bans will be exploited by women to obtain abortions in an environment in which it is otherwise outlawed. Rape, therefore, needs to be defined differently -- to be defined more narrowly and to be defined, most critically, as something that does not result in pregnancy.

You could see these conceptual gymnastics at work on the ground in Idaho earlier this year. Reported the Huffington Post:

The sponsor of an Idaho mandatory ultrasound bill, state Sen. Chuck Winder, made some highly controversial comments Monday during his closing arguments, suggesting women might falsely use rape as an excuse to obtain an abortion.

Just before the Idaho's Senate passed the bill, which requires woman to have an ultrasound prior to obtaining an abortion, opponents of the bill pointed out that it makes no exception for rape victims, incest victims or women in medical emergencies.

Winder, a Republican from Boise, responded to those concerns by raising the question of whether women understand when they have been raped.

"Rape and incest was used as a reason to oppose this," Winder said on the Senate floor. "I would hope that when a woman goes in to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that's part of the counseling that goes on."

Not surprisingly, Akin has had cold feet about efforts to expand the definition of rape, raising question about the 1991 bill that updated Missouri law to outlaw sexual abuse and rape within marriage for the first time because rape charges "in a real messy divorce" could be used "a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He ultimately voted for the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. John Ashcroft.

The most prominent example of the peculiar effort to downplay rape in order to decrease access to abortion cropped up in the U.S. Congress earlier this year. Sponsored by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," would have rewritten the rape exception in federal abortion-funding bans from the language in the Hyde Amendment. Henceforth, according to the bill, there would be exemptions only for something called "forcible rape." (Presumably, this is the same thing Willke called "assault rape" and Akin called "legitimate rape," as opposed to what Willke called "consensual" "statutory" rape.) After a public outcry, Smith retreated from his first draft of the bill and reinstituted the Hyde language, though an additional provision was added later to clarify that the bill will "not allow the Federal Government to subsidize abortions in cases of statutory rape." Akin and Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan were co-sponsors of the bill, along with 225 others. The bill passed the House with all Republicans and 16 Democrats voting for it, but then died in the Democrat-controlled Senate. President Obama had pledged to veto the bill.

According to a 1996 article in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, "among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year."

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

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