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Todd Akin, "Legitimate Rape" and Pregnancy: Reporters Wade into the Pseudoscientific Muck

Todd Akin, "Legitimate Rape" and Pregnancy: Reporters Wade into the Pseudoscientific Muck

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov
Todd Akin, legitimate rape, pregnancy, ReportingonHealth, Barbara Feder Ostrov

After Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's absurd claim about "legitimate rape" and pregnancy earlier this week, health reporters and bloggers were quick to explain why the U.S. Senate candidate was flat-out wrong in saying that women somehow don't get pregnant after rape.

More intriguingly, they waded into the pseudoscientific muck to show how the Missouri Republican came by his bizarre ideas.

For that, they deserve hazard pay.

I was surprised to learn that not only are Akin's views were shared by other pro-lifers, there's a long-running meme that women who have sex against their will can't get pregnant. In reality, research suggests that women who are raped get pregnant about 5 percent of the time, about the same rate as from consensual sex.

Where did the meme come from? Sharon Begley and Susan Heavey note in their Reuters story :

Writers from the Middle Ages and modern politicians alike have based their arguments on the idea that a trauma of the magnitude of rape can shut down the body's reproductive system…

…It dates at least to medieval times, when a 13th century English legal tome called Fleta asserted that pregnancy was prima facie evidence against a charge of rape, "for without a woman's consent she could not conceive."

A 19th century book, "Elements of Medical Jurisprudence" by Samuel Farr, said that conception is unlikely "without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act." That reflected the common notion that pregnancy requires a woman, like a man, to reach orgasm during intercourse.

The New York Times' Pam Belluck traced the idea's modern evolution:

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.

Willke told Belluck a woman being raped was less likely to fertilize an egg because she was "frightened, tight…the tubes are spastic."

Tim Townsend and Blythe Bernhard of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted two pages of a 1972 article by Dr. Fred Mecklenberg that informed Akin's bizarre views:

They write:

While U.S. Rep. Todd Akin cited only "doctors" as his source of information about the rarity of pregnancy resulting from rape, it is two pages, from Mecklenburg's 1972 article, "The Indications for Induced Abortion: A Physician's Perspective," that have influenced two generations of anti-abortion-rights activists hoping to build a medical case to ban all abortions without exception.

The idea that during rape, "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" to prevent pregnancy, as Akin said, has surfaced periodically, usually involving the term "forcible rape" to refer to what Akin called "legitimate."

In a story published before the Akin flap, science author Jesse Bering wrote about the "semen familiarity" hypothesis, which suggests that a woman is more likely to have preeclampsia (and therefore a higher risk of an unsuccessful pregnancy) when exposed to "unfamiliar" sperm. And then he went there on Twitter:

Science may provide some support for Akin's claim re: stranger rape, but remember, boyfriends and husbands can be "legitimate rapists" too.

— Jesse Bering (@JesseBering) August 20, 2012

Evolutionary biologist and blogger Jeremy Yoder smacked down that idea, noting:

In other words, if women have evolved some sort of physiological adaptation to avoid getting pregnant as a result of rape—whether via elevated risk of preeclampsia or another means—the actual benefits conferred by such an adaptation are so miniscule as to stretch the definition of "adaptive" to meaninglessness. But I can think of another well-known adaptation that does allow women to end unwanted pregnancies with a high degree of reliability: human intelligence. Women have been using abortifacients and other means to end pregnancies, sometimes well before preeclampsia typically occurs, since the dawn of recorded history, and modern medical technology from hormonal birth control to emergency contraception to, yes, abortion itself makes this simpler and safer than it's ever been.

If you're still interested in the science, Kate Clancy at Scientific American admirably lays out some key studies after an understandable rant over Akin's comments.

Did I miss any great science coverage of this topic? If so, let me know in the comments below.

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Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr


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Both Romney and Ryan have spoken at length with Willke, and assured him that his views will have a place in the Romney administration.

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"I was surprised to learn that not only are Akin's views were shared by other pro-lifers ...." Just to be clear: This is a fringe view. I'm a pro-lifer, and I'd never heard it before Akin said it. Just like some pro-choicers believe bizarre things, I'm sure some pro-lifers do, but the vast majority of us know better.

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Thank you, Barbara, for this piece! It's frightening to see how recently at least one "doctor" (I use the term loosely) promulgated the idea re: rape and pregnancy. Of course all the folks who think this is real are men.


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The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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