Aug. 20, 2012 at 3:14 PM ET
When Missouri Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin got himself in hot water by suggesting that “legitimate rape” rarely led to pregnancy, he insisted that doctors backed up his position.
The question is: Which doctors?
Physicians and rape experts say there’s no way the trauma of rape would prevent pregnancy from occurring.
“If a woman’s ovaries have already released an egg, she’s just as likely to get pregnant from a rape as she would be from a voluntary encounter,” Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told NBC News. “From the biological standpoint, a woman is at risk for pregnancy if she’s at a vulnerable point in her menstrual cycle when the rape occurs.”
On Sunday Rep. Akin, who is in the middle of a hard-fought campaign for a senate seat in Missouri, was defending his stance on abortion rights in instances when a woman is the victim of a rape.
“People always want to make it into one of those things – well, how do you slice this particularly tough ethical question,” Akin said in an interview on KTVI-TV. “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Although Akin later tried to cool things down by apologizing and mentioning his empathy for abused women, he never actually took back his suggestion that women are less likely to become pregnant if the sex was non-consensual.
“In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year,” he said.
Gail Abarbanel, founder and director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, was appalled by Akin’s remarks.
“I think his statement shows such a profound lack of knowledge about rape, the law, and the biology of women’s bodies,” Abarbanel said. “One of the most devastating consequences of rape is getting pregnant. To make the victim responsible for it is outrageous and offensive.”
Akin’s comments imply that women have some control over whether they get pregnant – and not so subtly suggest that women who conceive after an attack might not have experienced a “legitimate” rape, Abarbanel said.
“It’s another example of the blame-the-victim mentality that is so pervasive in our culture,” she said. “So much of the prevention advice you read in the media is telling women how not to get raped. Rape is only going to be prevented when you stop people from doing it.”
Akin’s not the first politician to claim the rape can prevent pregnancy, according to a report in the Washington Post. The anti-abortion thinking goes back to the 1980s, with politicians from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arkansas making the argument that rape disrupts conception, the newspaper reported Monday.
While some anti-abortion politicians profess knowledge of female reproductive biology, one doctor compared it to medieval thinking.
“My first reaction was OMG,” said Dr. Amy Rosenman, an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA. “It’s unbelievable. Stuff like that is from the dark ages...there is no physiologic method that prevents pregnancy in the case of rape. If there is an egg available and there are sperm available and they meet, then pregnancy occurs. The ovary and the ovum cannot differentiate sperm from friend or foe.”
In fact, each year 32,000 pregnancies result from rape, according to an article published in 1996 in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
“Simply put, Rep. Akin's claim is ridiculous,” said Katherine Hull, a spokesperson for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “Supporting victims — and recognizing the impact of the crime on them — is the very least we should expect from our political leaders."