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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.

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.

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.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/13/2013 - 09:29 am.

    To answer your question, Susan,

    A republican congressman from Arizona – ignorant

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 06/13/2013 - 10:27 am.

    Women, the Republican’s are trying extra hard to get your vote, as they continue to push their war on women. It’s an all male committee that is voting on your rights. The results of a rape or incest won’t impact them so they are all for you having to live with the results a rape or incest for the rest of your life. If it doesn’t impact them they are all for limiting the rights of women. When you go to the polls remember the Republican’s are trying extra hard for your vote.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/13/2013 - 11:03 am.

    Perhaps we should ask the good people of Arizona if

    rape or incest is okay in their state.

    I read the paragraph about women being turned away after the gestational period and all I could think of was of one more child growing up in a home without a loving parent.

  4. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/13/2013 - 11:14 am.

    One can only laugh, except

    that this is so stupid and sad.

    In general the Dems have an automatic +10 advantage in the polls with women except in the Neanderthal portion of the state. And even there they are falling all over themselves to find some “wimmen” candidates so they don’t look so terribly anti-woman.

    The beginning of the end of the current GOP in Msota started last Fall. Exsanguination will be finished after a few election cycles. Then perhaps the younger folks and their sensible elders can take back the party.

    Fiscal conservatism is a good thing. Social engineering is not. The Emmers of the party ignore this at their own peril.

  5. Submitted by Sara Fleets on 06/13/2013 - 11:55 am.


    What I have never understood about this argument is that if rape pregnancies are so rare; why not just leave the exception in the purposed law then?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/13/2013 - 12:27 pm.


      But the reason they don’t want to leave it in is because it ISN’T insignificant. I don’t believe that this is a matter of ignorance. I believe that this is an intentional injustice to women, particularly those with little means to defend themselves from these attacks. After all, while 25,000 out of 1+ million seems insignificant, it’s not insignificant to those women or the resulting children. And based on some additional information about socioeconomic status, it would seem that these unwanted pregnancies are a huge burden on not only the mother, but the taxpayers, as well.

      My guess is that even more women (and children!) will be victims of this type of legislation than predicted because we actually significantly underestimate the incidence of rape and incest. One can only assume that rape results in pregnancy at at least the same rate as consensual sex. And because consensual sex is more likely to happen when people are planning it, it’s more likely to happen when a form of birth control is involved. So, on average, rape is probably MORE likely to result in pregnancy. One can’t assume that those who have been polled on the circumstances resulting in their pregnancy will be entirely truthful, even if the polling is anonymous. There is a very strong stigma attached to being a rape victim, and particularly victims of incest since the victim is likely to still be close to their attacker.

  6. Submitted by David Frenkel on 06/13/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    Elect more woman to office

    All this kind of silly discussion would end if we had more women running this country. None of these wild comments about female reproductive issues or female sexual assaults have come from women. Right wing male politicians believe their revisionist science that does not buy them any female votes and usually ends their political careers. Why do these politicians always apologize for saying what they truly believe?

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/13/2013 - 03:56 pm.

    Yes, the course

    …is a fine idea, Susan, but it’s not going to be put in place any time soon, at least not in political jurisdictions that send people like Mr. Franks and Mr. Akin to Congress, or to any other elective office.

    These people combine genuine misogyny with religious fundamentalism to a degree that makes the phrase “American Taliban” have the ring of truth. They’re malevolently opposed to sex, birth control, abortion, and women, all rolled up into a package that obviously appeals to many who are testosterone-driven, but that makes for ludicrous public policy and public statements that would be hilarious if the ignorance they revealed were more benign. Alas, it is not.

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 06/14/2013 - 09:45 am.

      Right on, Ray

      Here’s how a friend of mine explained to me the Republican mindset on rape:

      1) There’s a belief among Republicans that allowing women to get abortions allows them to avoid the “consequences” of their immoral lifestyle. Since rape is a genuine example of a case where a woman becomes pregnant through no choice or action of her own, they feel the need to downplay the possibility of rape-related pregnancies to close the “loophole” in their belief.

      2) Genuine scientific ignorance coupled with belief in an active God and the sanctity of life. If God is good and active in the universe, unborn babies are precious to Him, and rape is an evil act, then God wouldn’t create a baby out of a non-consensual union. Therefore, if a woman is raped and she gets pregnant, it wasn’t a legitimate rape.

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