Rape and Conservative Mythology

August 20, 2012 in Health Policy, Medical Ethics by RangelMD

Representative Todd Akin, a sitting US House member running for the US Senate from Missouri was just another staunch anti-abortionist conservative member of the Tea Party Caucus until he inadvertently stated his true beliefs regarding pregnancy resulting from rape in a local TV interview yesterday.

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

That’s news to me. And I’m a doctor. What does Representative Akin mean and how did he arrive at this point?

If I assume the Congressman’s classification of “legitimate rape” to mean non-consensual and usually violently forced unlawful sexual intercourse then he seems to be alluding to the common mythology surrounding orgasm and the chances of conception. Although there are plenty of theories as to how the female orgasm may help with conception,  there is no scientific proof that the female orgasm has any effect on the rates of conception.

“Although female orgasm may promote sperm transport, there is no known relationship between orgasm and fertility.” – Optimizing Natural Fertility, The Practice Committee of American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. 2008.

The obvious corollary to this statement is that women cannot avoid pregnancy simply by avoiding orgasm.The same reasoning would apply to non-statutory rape though this was not always the case. Starting about the 13th century, it became common to believe that pregnancy required female orgasm as an analogy to the male ejaculate. Therefore, rape could not result in conception and if a pregnancy did result, it was taken as evidence that rape did not occur. Of course this now debunked belief occurred hundreds of years before modern medical science and the discovery of endocrinology and the anatomical basis of fertility.

But Mr. Akin’s statement appears to go well beyond orgasm and pregnancy to the claim that there is an active physiologic mechanism in human females that can defend against pregnancy as a result of forcible intercourse. Mr. Akin did not cite any sources or elaborate on this mechanism being that scientific proof is the burden of liberals and scientists and not conservatives, theologians, or magicians.

It appears that modern anti-abortionists have co-opted  the ancient belief of orgasm and pregnancy and applied it to their “rape problem”. This is a problem faced by staunch conservatives like Mr. Akin who want to outlaw abortion in all circumstances including rape. However, they face a very difficult political course due to the fact that generally less than 20% of the population feel that abortion should be illegal in all cases. The idea of forcing a woman to carry the product of a violent attack – which could include incest – to term is not acceptable to the vast majority of Americans. What is a far right winger to do?

Answer; deny that the problem exists. Akins as well as many anti-abortionists believe that pregnancy as a result of violent rape is “rare” and they have the pseudo-science to back it up. In an article from 1999, former head of the National Right to Life Committee Dr. John C. Willke attempted to use national crime statistics combined with selected fertility statistics and several highly speculative variables including a completely hypothetical and unproven physiological mechanism to arrive at a ridiculously low number.

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. If we use the 50 percent figure, we have a final figure of 225 (or 370) women pregnant each year. These numbers closely match the 200 that have been documented in clinical studies.

Dr. Willke’s bizzare logic almost exactly mirrors Mr. Akin’s. Both consider rape to be rare, both posit a vague mechanism whereby the female body is able to avoid conception via rape, and neither cite any proof. Dr. Willke’s logic regarding his “hormonal rape trauma” theory  is little better than the  ancient Greek “Four Humors” theory of disease.

Dr. Willke’s failure to cite proof is actually an omission of data that contradicts his claims. A 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (AJOG) estimated that an astounding 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year and there is even evidence to suggest that per-incident rape-pregnancy rates are higher than those of consensual intercourse (even controlling for contraceptive use).  This real world data is nowhere near the 225 to 370 rape related pregnancies guesstimated by Willke et al.

Even worse is that the AJOG study found that the majority of rape related pregnancies occurred in adolescents as a result of an assault by a known, often related rapist. Only 11.7% of these victims received immediate medical attention after the assault . . and 32.4% of these victims did not discover they were pregnant until they had already entered the second trimester. In short, rape related pregnancy usually occurs in the most vulnerable populations and is often connected with family and domestic violence and severe dysfunction. These are the women who already have significantly impaired access to contraception, women’s healthcare, and social support networks. And Willke and Akins want to pretend that these victims don’t exist.

EDIT: In 1995, North Carolina state Rep. Henry Aldridge reportedly told state lawmakers who were debating a bill to eliminate state funding for abortions for poor women the following gem;

The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant,” said Aldridge, a 71-year-old periodontist. “Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.

Pregnancy from “true” or “legitimate” rape is “rare”. Check.  Some vague physiologic mechanism whereby rape victims do not get pregnant. Check.  The fallacy of appealing to authority without even bothering to name or cite a source. Check. Obviously this garbage has been around for quite a while among conservatives.

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