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Why the debate over 'legitimate rape' has potential to do lasting harm

Bad Biology



As any woman who has ever hovered over a toilet trying to pee on a stick instead of her hand can tell you, intent and emotion do not prevent pregnancy. Neither do politically convenient myths, including the one that has surfaced with alarming persistence in recent weeks — the belief that some sort of uterine fail-safe function protects rape victims from pregnancy.

The biological facts of getting pregnant (not including assisted reproduction techniques) are as follows: If an egg is fertilized by sperm within the fallopian tubes, it may travel to the woman's uterus to implant in the uterine lining. Although estimates vary, it's thought that around 15 percent of known, implanted pregnancies result in miscarriage, while as many as half of fertilized eggs never implant and are passed without women ever noticing.

The causes of these losses are not often known. Nevertheless, it is agreed upon scientifically that women's bodies have no inherent biological mechanism that automatically prevents fertilization or implantation after rape.

These are simple biological truths. And yet Republican Missouri Rep. and Senate candidate Todd Akin effectively denied them last month when he said, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Akin later backtracked on the egregious framing of some rapes as "legitimate." But he never really rescinded his statement that pregnancies resulting from rape are "really rare," or that women's bodies have a mechanism to block rape-related pregnancy.

This limited understanding of the female body and its supposed magic might be comical, if Akin didn't sit on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Or if the ensuing weeks hadn't showed how widely this myth is accepted — disturbingly, by male lawmakers who are claiming jurisdiction over women's bodies and bodily functions, yet clearly don't understand how either work.

Just last week, published reports had Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr [R-48] agreeing with Akin that women's bodies might have some mysterious biological mechanism to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape. He later showed his own apparent ignorance of basic human biology by stating, while backtracking, "I don't know enough about the science to comment on whether it was accurate or inaccurate."

These beliefs about rape and pregnancy, while not medically accurate, are not new. In an Aug. 20 post, New York Times blogger Robert Mackey cited numerous Republican politicians repeating similar claims from the 1980s and 1990s. (Among them was 1998 Arkansas Senate candidate Dr. Fay Boozman, later appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee to run the state department of health.)

Not coincidentally, this corresponded with a time of rising anti-abortion activism. One of the few quasi-scientific names cited in support of the myth — frequently — is Dr. John Willke, a prominent anti-abortion leader and M.D. whose ideas on stress and conception have been widely discredited. It was Willke who recently supplied the startling explanation, "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."

By scientific standards that claim is laughable. And yet it didn't dissuade Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield [R-7] from citing Willke (as cited by yet another blogger) as the sole evidence for a blog post titled, "Akin wrong? Not so fast...."

Willke serves a role common to any movement lacking solid scientific evidence: someone with credentials for true believers to latch onto, even when that person's conclusions are contradicted by more rigorous, reliable evidence. Whether rape victims can get pregnant, though, is not a matter of belief. With the current tendency to present every "side" of an issue as legitimate, no matter how bizarre or disproven, there's a real danger of the question "Does rape cause pregnancy?" becoming just another matter of politically motivated belief, harming real women in the process.

Estimates vary of how often post-rape pregnancies occur. Yet it's a scientific, biological fact that they do. The relevant professional organization of doctors, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists responded to the recent controversy, stating unequivocally:

"Each year in the US, 10,000–15,000 abortions occur among women whose pregnancies are a result of reported rape or incest. An unknown number of pregnancies resulting from rape are carried to term. There is absolutely no veracity to the claim that "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down." A woman who is raped has no control over ovulation, fertilization, or implantation of a fertilized egg (i.e., pregnancy). To suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths."

The idea that pregnancy doesn't result from rape, or that it doesn't happen enough to matter when crafting anti-abortion policies — such as in the GOP platform, which endorses a Constitutional amendment banning abortion, without exceptions for rape — does real harm to rape victims. Already they are struggling with disclosing their rapes and the possibility of being accused of inviting the attack. Facing an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy only compounds the problem.

"They are absolutely devastated," says Jeff Teague, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee. "I don't think any woman ever imagines that they're going to be attacked. When it does, to have then a pregnancy result is beyond what any woman could ever imagine would happen to them."

This, however, gets at the root of why the myth persists: It serves two important political purposes. First, it allows voters not to feel too bad about politicians who work to severely restrict abortion access in a way that affects rape victims, while providing those candidates and elected officials with political cover for the same. If women — especially those with strong anti-abortion beliefs — don't imagine that they might ever be faced with this situation, and if politicians promote the idea that it almost never happens, then it's much easier politically to promote restrictions on abortion that ignore rape.

Second, the belief that pregnancy almost never results from rape also props up the notion that women who say they were raped are suspect. If they became pregnant, this line of reasoning goes, they might not have really been raped. Or there are "degrees" of rape, some of which we don't have to take too seriously.

There is a long history of state laws perpetuating the notion that there are varying degrees of rape. For example, marital rape did not become a crime in all 50 states until 1993. Today, many states still impose lesser penalties for spousal rape, require the rape to be "forcible," or ignore rape if the couple was living together. Tennessee did not treat rape by a spouse the same as any other assault until 2005.

Misinformation about rape, regrettably, isn't confined to one party. In 2008, Tennessee state Sen. Douglas Henry [D-21] stated, "Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse. Today it's simply, 'Let's don't go forward with this act.' " Implicit in such notions, including "legitimate rape," is that some rapes don't really "count," because the usually female victims were married, or simply not virtuous enough.

Addressing this issue, the ACOG statement left little room for argument: "There are no varying degrees of rape. To suggest otherwise is inaccurate and insulting and minimizes the serious physical and psychological repercussions for all victims of rape."

While ongoing myths about rape and pregnancy serve a purpose for politicians, it's also easy to see how they could make a kind of folk sense. More than 10 percent of U.S. women use some type of infertility service, evidenced online by "trying to conceive" discussion boards full of women desperately awaiting their "big fat positives." Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control has placed such emphasis on pre-pregnancy health that some women feel reduced to babymaking machines in need of perpetual tuning. In this climate, it's easy to think that getting pregnant is really difficult, and that something as traumatic as rape might interrupt pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the trauma of rape doesn't protect women from unwanted pregnancy. As Teague explains, Planned Parenthood sees women who have been raped, and these women are "under incredible stress" — from being attacked and violated, from the strain of deciding whether to report the attack because they might be blamed for it, from the stress of having police gather forensic evidence for criminal proceedings if they do report it. Add to that the shock of becoming pregnant.

"It is terribly traumatic for [these] women," Teague says.

If actual biology and experience aren't enough, however, consider an opposite take on the influence of stress and conception. Half the pregnancies in this country each year are unplanned. If women contained pregnancy-blocking magic fairy dust activated by anxiety, this percentage would surely be lower.

Likewise, if sheer emotional distress were enough to prevent pregnancy, our teen pregnancy rate would certainly be greatly diminished. Scarily, there are politicians who prefer to propagate myths rather than accept basic truths about women's bodies and human reproduction.

And quite a few of them seem to need a basic biology lesson.

Rachel Walden is a medical librarian. She founded the blog Women's Health News ( and contributes to Our Bodies Ourselves (


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