Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Rape, pregnancy, statistics and the ignorance of some politicians

Here we go again with the whack-a-mole idea that rape rarely results in pregnancy. The politician this time is Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.

Here we go again with the whack-a-mole idea that rape rarely results in pregnancy.

This time, however, I’m not sure if the politician who’s promulgating that bogus idea is actually ignorant about rape and female biology or is simply using statistical language to be misleading.

Wikimedia Commons
Rep. Trent Franks

The politician is Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., whose bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except when the mother’s life is threatened was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Before the vote, the committee debated a Democratic amendment to the legislation that would have made exceptions for rape and incest.

The amendment was unnecessary, Franks said, because “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy [is] very low.” (The amendment was voted down by the Republican-led committee.)

Later on Wednesday, after his comments were criticized, Franks tried to clarify what he had meant. “Pregnancies from rape that result in abortion after the beginning of the sixth month are very rare,” he said in a statement to

In other words, it would be highly unlikely for a pregnant rape victim to seek out abortion during her second trimester.

An unreliable source

As I noted here last August, when then-Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., stated during his failed 2012 Senate campaign that “legitimate” rapes don’t result in pregnancy, the idea that pregnancy is a rare outcome of rape can be traced back to a 1999 article written by Dr. John C. Willke, a past president of the National Right to Life organization and the current president of the ban-all-abortions Life Issues Institute.

Article continues after advertisement

Willke claimed that the physical trauma of rape somehow shuts down the production of female hormones in a way that makes it highly unlikely that a rape victim will become impregnated.

That’s all nonsense, of course.

In a 1996 study, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina set out to determine the rape-related pregnancy rate in the United States. They estimated that about 5 percent of rape victims of reproductive age (12 to 45) become pregnant — a percentage that results in about 32,000 pregnancies each year.

“Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency,” the researchers wrote. “It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence.”

Four years later, another study, this time conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, estimated that rape led to as many as 25,000 pregnancies in the U.S. each year.

“Pregnancy following rape is a continuing and significant public health issue,” concluded the authors of that study.

Furthermore, in a 2004 national survey of a representative sample of women who had undergone abortions, 1 percent of the women indicated that they had been victims of rape. In addition, slightly less than half a percent said they became pregnant as a result of incest. At the time of that survey, an estimated 1.3 million women were undergoing abortions annually in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The survey thus suggests that each year about 19,500 U.S. abortions are undertaken to end pregnancies that occurred as a result of rape or incest.

Furthermore, women who become pregnant as a result of rape do not always realize it right away. In the 1996 study, researchers found that 32 percent of the rape victims — or about 10,000 women — did not discover they were pregnant until they were in their second trimester (generally defined as weeks 14 to 26), at which time half underwent an abortion.

(Although it does not pertain only to rape victims who find themselves pregnant, an article in this weekend’s  New York Times Magazine discusses the research of Diana Greene Foster, a demographer and associate professor of obestetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco. She has been studying what happens when women are turned away from abortion clinics because of gestational limits. Those limits are usually determined by state law, and vary from 10 weeks to the end of the second trimester (26 weeks). Foster compared the “turnaways” with a demographically similar group of women who had obtained an abortion just before the gestational limit. She found that the “turnaways” had suffered more negative health effects, such as high blood pressure, and were three times more likely to be living below the poverty level two years later.)

Misleading and disingenuous

So, yes, the incidence rate of pregnancies resulting from rape is “low” compared to all the pregnancies that occur each year in the United States. And, yes, the incidence rate for post-20-week abortions among rape victims is “rare” compared to all the abortions undergone each year by women who have been raped.

But that doesn’t mean the actual number of those pregnancies and abortions is insubstantial.

Referring only to the incidence rate, therefore, is both misleading and disingenuous.

I’ve written here before that it’s time to require our politicians to take — and pass — a course in female biology.

Maybe we should insist they take a course in the reporting of statistics, too.