WASHINGTON -- It didn’t take long for the Republican establishment to back away from Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman and Senate candidate who declared in an interview on Sunday that the female body can somehow prevent pregnancy after a “legitimate rape.”
Akin himself eventually walked back the comment, saying that he had misspoken in “off-the-cuff remarks,” and that, “to be clear, all of us understand that rape can result in pregnancy.”
But the initial statement -- “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” -- echoes a belief system that exists in the most aggressive corners of the antiabortion movement.
The assertion can be traced back to Dr. Jack C. Willke, the former president of the U.S. National Right to Life Committee. Willke and his wife, Barbara, are leading antiabortion advocates and authors of the book “Why Can’t We Love Them Both: Questions and Answers About Abortion.”
They contend in the book, first published in 1971, that “assault rape” rarely results in pregnancy because the assault traumatizes the woman and makes her body less habitable.
It’s ”just downright unusual” for a woman to get pregnant from a rape, Willke said in an interview Monday. He said studies have shown this to be true, but produced little evidence beyond a few footnotes that cite a handful of decades-old papers.
“This goes back 30 and 40 years. When a woman is assaulted and raped, there’s a tremendous amount of emotional upset within her body,” Willke said, adding that this trauma “can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.”
“No one really knows” how often those emotional effects prevent pregnancy, Willke said, but he estimated that there are just one or two pregnancies for every 1,000 rapes.
That contradicts research published in the 1990s in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology, which found that the occurrence of rape-related pregnancies is 5%. More than 32,000 women experience rape-related pregnancy every year, the research found.
Scientists at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., concluded in 2001 that the rate of rape-related pregnancy is even higher -- 6.4%, twice the rate of pregnancy from consensual sex.
But Willke is not deterred. He said Akin erred not in suggesting that the female body can shut down an unwanted pregnancy, but in using the term “legitimate rape.”
“There is no such thing as a legitimate rape,” Willke said, adding that Akin should have said “assault rape." The term “assault rape” or “forcible rape” makes it clear that the woman suffered some sort of trauma -- the type of thing that supposedly shuts the reproductive system down, Willke said.
Willke’s claim is published in the millions of copies of his book -- which has been printed in 21 languages and sold around the world and on the website abortionfacts.com.
Willke is not the only person to make this argument, but he is its most unabashed advocate.
Arkansas politician Fay Boozman said in the late 1990s that “fear-induced hormonal changes could block a rape victim’s ability to conceive,” but later apologized for the statement, saying it was “not statistically based.”
Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephen Freind, in the 1980s, suggested that rape causes women to “secrete a certain secretion which has the tendency to kill sperm.” He was roundly ridiculed and eventually took the less radical -- but still unproven -- position that “hormone-triggering factors” might “delay, disrupt or prohibit” ovulation.