By Jane M. Orient, M.D.
“From what I understand from doctors, that’s (conception as a result of rape) really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” – Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo.
All decent people, including U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin, agree that forcible rape is a heinous crime. Almost all would agree that illegitimate (false) accusations of rape occur – there’s the case of the Duke lacrosse players, for example.
All reasonable people, including Todd Akin, agree that pregnancy can result from forcible rape – but there is scientific disagreement on how likely it is.
A 1988 textbook, the second edition of “Human Sex and Sexuality” by Edwin B. Steen and James H. Price, estimates a 2 percent pregnancy rate. A 2012 textbook, “Comprehensive Gynecology,” 6th edition, gives an estimate of between 2 percent and 5 percent and states that “in the experience of most sexual assault centers, the chance of pregnancy occurring is quite low.” Estimates depend on flawed methods, with inevitable biases. An experiment to give an accurate figure is, of course, impossible. And does the estimate really matter to the woman who has been raped? Either she gets pregnant, or she doesn’t.
Is the risk of pregnancy lower with forcible rape, and if so, why? Off the cuff, Todd Akin gave a layman’s restatement of the point made by some pro-life physicians that the female body has some defense mechanisms against pregnancy in cases of rape.
The process of fertilization, implantation and maintenance of pregnancy is an intricate one, highly dependent on hormonal signals. Stress is conceded to make miscarriage more likely by disrupting the hormonal milieu. What could be more stressful than a forcible rape?
The intensity of the media outrage against Akin’s remark shows that this is not a scientific dispute about numbers, or the definition of “really rare.” Medical science is being replaced by political demagoguery about the issue of rape.
Rape clearly involves a forcible penetration of a woman’s body, without her consent, almost always by a man. It is painful and causes harm – not just physical injury but often lifelong, serious emotional distress: flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, difficulty forming normal relationships and even guilt.
Starting from one extreme, some radical feminists appear to believe that most if not all sex involving a man and a woman is a rape. The man is always the perpetrator, and the woman, a victim. Clearly, there are activities that are not forcible rape and do not involve the same emotional reaction, but are still not legitimate. These would include statutory rape, “date rape” and seduction. To suggest that a woman ‘s dress or behavior might in some cases have contributed is, of course, unacceptable.
At the other extreme, radical Muslims appear to believe that rape rarely if ever occurs, and that all non-marital contact between a man and a woman is illegitimate and the fault of the temptress. From the fury directed at Akin, you’d think he had advocated Shariah law and “honor” killings.
Then there’s the question of what to do if rape leads to pregnancy. Should there be a death penalty for rape? In the U.S., few advocate executing the rapist. Under Shariah, the rape victim might be executed, at least if she is not pregnant. But what about the rapist’s baby?
What happens in an abortion? A woman’s body is penetrated by instruments, usually in the hands of a man. The woman will have signed a consent form – but all too often because she felt she had “no choice.” The procedure is painful and bloody. Occasionally, serious physical injury occurs, sometimes even causing death of the mother. Judging from the million or so postings on the nonjudgmental website afterabortion.com, long-term emotional consequences are not uncommon, whatever official medical publications might say.
This procedure is almost always “legitimate” (legal) in the U.S. by order of the U.S. Supreme Court. It is the most common elective surgical procedure. We have lost as much as one-third of our younger generation because of it. The vast majority of Americans have been touched by it in some way. Of course it is emotional and divisive.
Politicians who claim to be pro-life are often adamant about preserving an exception for rape or incest. This exception is a fig leaf over the reality of what an abortion is. Coming too close to The Question is feared to jeopardize the chance to gain political power.
Akin’s phrasing became a convenient pretext for raising a disproportionate clamor as a diversion from the real problem. Those politicians and commentators who are calling for Akin’s head have signaled where their priorities lie.
Jane Orient, M.D., is the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.