As soon as I read the comments that Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) made Sunday about how “legitimate” rapes don’t result in pregnancy, my first thoughts were 1) what an insensitive ignoramus, and 2) it’s long past time that we require our politicians to take — and pass — a course in female biology. After all, if they’re going to be enacting laws that affect women’s health and bodies, they should at least understand how the female body works.
It’s clear that right now many of them simply don’t have a clue.
Akin showed his ignorance while defending his no-exceptions stance on abortion during an interview on a local Missouri television station Sunday morning. “It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape is] really rare,” he told KTVI-TV. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
“But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something,” he added. “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
Akin’s ridiculous idea that women have some kind of natural defense that somehow fights off conception during a “legitimate” rape isn’t new to a particular wing of the political spectrum, as Garance Franke-Rute, a senior editor at the Atlantic, pointed out on Sunday afternoon:
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.
Franke-Rute then quotes from a 1999 article written by Dr. John C. Willke, a past-president of the National Right to Life Committee and the current president of the ban-all-abortions Life Issues Institutes (and who may be one of those unnamed doctors that Akin referred to in his TV comments):
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.
Of course, Willke offers no scientific evidence to support this biologically bogus theory about rape, hormones and the menstrual cycle. And it is bogus. Although it’s difficult to truly know how many pregnancies result from rape because rapes are so underreported, a team of University of South Carolina researchers took a stab at it in 1996. They estimated that about 32,000 pregnancies resulted from rape each year in the United States.
“Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency,” the researchers concluded. “It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence. As we address the epidemic of unintended pregnancies in the United States, greater attention and effort should be aimed at preventing and identifying unwanted pregnancies that result from sexual victimization.”
A 2004 survey by the Guttmacher Institute of a representative sample of women who had had abortions found that 1 percent of the women indicated that they had been victims of rape, and slightly less than half a percent said they became pregnant as a result of incest. Those percentages had not changed from a similar survey taken 17 years earlier, in 1987. At the time of the 2004 survey, an estimated 1.3 million women were undergoing abortions each year in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Akin’s remarks sparked an Internet storm on Sunday, and soon even Republican activists and pundits were calling for him to withdraw from his current Senate race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Within hours, Akin issued a statement in which he said he had “misspoke” in the KTVI-TV interview and that his “off-the-cuff remarks” did not “reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.”
Later, he added more clarification via Twitter: “To be clear, all of us understand that rape can result in pregnancy & I have great empathy for all victims. I regret misspeaking.”
Maybe somebody gave Atkin a biology lesson between his morning TV interview and his afternoon tweet. We can only hope.