Romney Endorsed by, Praised Dr. John Willke, Leading Proponent of Idea That Rape Lowers Pregnancy Risk

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The Republican presidential candidate hasn't always avoided those who share Todd Akin's beliefs.

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Mitt Romney distanced himself Monday from embattled Missouri Rep. Todd Akin over the Republican senate candidate's assertion that "legitimate rape" causes women to "shut down" conception.

"He should understand that his words with regards to rape are not words that I can defend, that we can defend, or that we can defend him," Romney told WMUR during a campaign swing through New Hampshire.

But this isn't the first time a member of the Republican Big Tent has asserted this, and in 2007 presidential candidate Mitt Romney sought and won the endorsement of the man who has since the mid-1980s promoted the scientifically baseless idea that rape doesn't lead to pregnancy, Dr. John C. Willke.

Hailing him as "The Father Of The Pro-Life Movement" and "an important surrogate for Governor Romney's pro-life and pro-family agenda," the Romney for President campaign in 2007 welcomed Willke's endorsement.

"I am proud to have the support of a man who has meant so much to the pro-life movement in our country," Romney said in a statement at the time. "He knows how important it is to have someone in Washington who will actively promote pro-life policies. Policies that include more than appointing judges who will follow the law but also opposing taxpayer funded abortion and partial birth abortion. I look forward to working with Dr. Willke and welcome him to Romney for President."

Willke was equally effusive. "Governor Romney is the only candidate who can lead our pro-life and pro-family conservative movement to victory in 2008," he said in the statement. "Unlike other candidates who only speak to the importance of confronting the major social issues of the day, Governor Romney has a record of action in defending life. Every decision he made as Governor was on the side of life. I know he will be the strong pro-life President we need in the White House."

In Tuesday's New York Times, reporter Pam Belluck found that Willke was sticking to his scientifically baseless beliefs about pregnancy and rape, saying that because rape makes women "uptight" it decreases the likelihood they will get pregnant during a violent encounter:

Dr. John C. Willke, a general practitioner with obstetric training and a former president of the National Right to Life Committee, was an early proponent of this view, articulating it in a book originally published in 1985 and again in a 1999 article. He reiterated it in an interview Monday.

"This is a traumatic thing -- she's, shall we say, she's uptight," Dr. Willke said of a woman being raped, adding, "She is frightened, tight, and so on. And sperm, if deposited in her vagina, are less likely to be able to fertilize. The tubes are spastic."

Leading experts on reproductive health, however, dismissed this logic.

"There are no words for this -- it is just nuts," said Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.

Belluck also found Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, pointing to Willke's 1999 article to justify Akin's statements. Willke wrote about what he said was "certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that's physical trauma....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."

"In other words, ladies and gentleman, Todd Akin was exactly right," Fischer said.

Fischer last gained notice during the 2012 campaign for successfully organizing a push against Romney's appointment of Richard Grenell, an openly gay man, to be his national security spokesman. Fischer called Grennell's sexuality "offensive to God" and took credit for his resignation and for bringing Romney in line with social conservatives once he stepped down.

Asked for comment on Willke's views and whether Romney knew of them before seeking his endorsement, a spokesperson for the campaign pointed to Romney's statements on Akin, but declined to comment on the doctor.

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

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