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The canard of 'legitimate rape,' from Galen and Medieval law to Todd Akin and the modern GOP

The presidential campaign turned to the subject of abortion this week after Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, repeated the spurious claim that rape rarely results in pregnancy. "From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," Akin said in an interview with a local television station in St. Louis. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Akin's claim about the rarity of pregnancies resulting from rape is, of course, false. Estimates of the number of pregnancies resulting from rape each year range from 3,000 to 25,000.

But the deeper, embedded assumption here -- that rape cannot truly be labeled as such if the victim becomes pregnant -- is not merely a bizarre misunderstanding of basic human biology. It's an insidious myth peddled by figures on the far-right for decades, and its lineage can be traced back centuries, to the earliest, most primitive theories about women, sexuality and reproduction.

In the second-century AD, the Roman physician Galen laid the groundwork for this myth with his theory that the reproductive systems of men and women were virtually identical. Galen wrote of genitalia, "Turn outward the woman's, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man's, and you will find the same in both in every respect."

That idea persisted in some form for centuries, influencing early legal theories about the relationship between pregnancy and sexual assault. A Medieval legal text from the 13th century, for example, contains this passage about rape: "If ... the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, [the allegation] abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive."

The false principle at the heart of this theory was that women must experience sexual arousal in order for a pregnancy to occur. If the victim became pregnant, she must have consented, thus disproving the allegation of rape.

In the 17th century, the English Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale, who presided over a series of prominent witch trials, extended this principle to the courtroom, writing famously, "In a rape case it is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial."

These antiquated notions about sexuality and reproduction persisted even into the 19th century, when the British physician Samuel Farr wrote in The Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, "For without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place. So that if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated, it is not likely she would become pregnant."

This apocryphal connection between consent and pregnancy has been disproved countless times over the last half-century, but nonetheless persists in certain far-right circles. As recently as 1999, for example, Dr. John Willke, the former president of the National Right to Life Committee, wrote: "Assault rape pregnancies are extremely rare. … 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."

Willke has long been a prominent figure in the anti-abortion movement. So prominent, in fact, that in 2007, a leading Republican presidential candidate eagerly touted Wilke's endorsement, saying in a statement at the time, "I am proud to have the support of a man who has meant so much to the pro-life movement."

On Thursday of next week that candidate, Mitt Romney, will formally accept the presidential nomination of a party whose platform explicitly calls for amending the United States Constitution to outlaw abortions entirely, making no exceptions for incest, the mother's health, or rape.

:: Sal Gentile is a segment & digital producer for Up w/ Chris Hayes. Follow him on Twitter at @salgentile. ::