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EDITOR’S NOTE: The question keeps arising on Todd Akin’s current book tour about the evidence that links rape and infertility. This article is being rerun to answer those questions.
WASHINGTON – While two new fertility studies showing stress in males and females inhibits pregnancy have received worldwide attention, no one has linked them with the biggest U.S. political controversy of 2012 – Rep. Todd Akin’s suggestion that pregnancy as a result of rape is relatively infrequent.
That’s about to change as the unsuccessful Missouri Republican Senate candidate hits the media circuit in July for the first time since the 2012 election with the release of a new book, “Firing Back: Taking on the Party Bosses and Media Elite to Protect Our Faith and Freedom.”
When asked in a local television interview in 2012 whether he would support abortion in the case of rape, Akin made the following statement, which led to a firestorm of criticism, denunciation and ridicule by many, even in his own party, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney: “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. You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
Akin’s statement was criticized on two premises:
- The use of the term “legitimate rape,” with some suggesting Akin was attempting to delegitimize the crime of rape;
- His suggestion that it is unusual for rape victims to become pregnant.
Akin takes on the first point in “Firing Back”: “When a woman claims to have been raped, the police determine if the evidence supports the legal definition of ‘rape.’ Is it a legitimate claim of rape or an excuse to avoid an unwanted pregnancy? Are the police warranted to take action against a crime or not? In short, the word ‘legitimate’ modifies the claim and not the action. There have been women who have lied about being raped, as Norma McCorvey did before the U.S. Supreme Court. The infamous Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 was based on a lie.”
On the second point, Akin writes: “My comment about a woman’s body shutting the pregnancy down was directed to the impact of stress on fertilization. This is something fertility doctors debate and discuss. Doubt me? Google ‘stress and fertilization,’ and you will find a library of research on the subject. The research is not conclusive, but there is considerable evidence that stress makes conception more difficult. And what could be more stressful than a rape?”
Akin also goes on to say that his critics twisted his remarks to suggest he was denying the possibility of pregnancy from forcible rape.
“In fact, several fantastic young Americans who campaigned with me were themselves the products of rape,” he writes. “And they were thankful I would stand with them.”
Is Akin right that pregnancy seldom results from rape?
There’s not much doubt about it. The studies pointing to the highest incidence suggest no more than 5 percent of rape victims become pregnant as a result of the attack. Many others suggest much lower numbers.
When Akin’s comments dominated the news cycle in August 2012, the Los Angeles Times assigned reporter Kim Geiger to look into the question.
“Surprisingly few hard facts and figures were available about the prevalence of rape-related pregnancies,” she wrote. “Many news outlets, including this one, cited a 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which estimated that more than 23,000 women experience a rape-related pregnancy each year. The report also concluded that 5 percent of rape victims become pregnant, which would mean that 640,000 rapes occur each year.
“But that figure doesn’t jibe with other reputable sources. For example, FBI data show that 95,769 forcible rapes were reported in 1996. The 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey calculates that 64,080 rapes occurred in 2004 and 2005,” she reported.
Yet, that seemingly questionable study in 1996 has formed the basis for many reports on the number of rapes that take place in America annually, the number of pregnancies that result and the percentage of rapes that result in pregnancy.
In fact, no one knows how many pregnancies result from rape because no one is keeping records. But applying the 5 percent estimate to the 64,080 figure of rapes in 2004 and 2005 brings the pregnancy estimate down to 3,204, the figure used by the Justice Department’s 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey. Still, it’s only an estimate based on an assumption that pregnancy results from rape at the same rate as non-coercive sex.
See Akin’s full answer:
However, new studies released on the fertility of men and woman suggest stress greatly reduces the incidence of pregnancy.
Psychological stress may degrade sperm quality and sperm fertility, according to a study published May 29 in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
"Men who feel stressed are more likely to have lower concentrations of sperm in their ejaculate, and the sperm they have are more likely to be misshapen or have impaired motility," said researcher Pam Factor-Litvak, an epidemiologist at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, in a statement. "These deficits could be associated with fertility problems."
While the study did not specifically address the question of rape, it raises the question asked rhetorically by Todd Akin: "And what could be more stressful than a rape?"
Akin's controversial comment in 2012 did not address the role of male fertility but rather female fertility – the idea that "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Indeed, other fertility studies this year might lend support to that claim.
- Professor Sarah Berga of Emory University in Atlanta studied 16 women in their 20s and 30s who were normal weight but had not had a period for six months. In research she presented recently to the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology in Prague, Berga revealed the women were found to have high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is linked to stress. Half the group was given cognitive behavioral therapy that resulted in at least two pregnancies among the group. But the stress study has relevance beyond those who fail to ovulate, noted Berga. Cortisol is known as the "fight or flight hormone." It is produced within minutes of a stressful situation by the adrenal glands after receiving a message from the brain. In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be life-saving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating some body functions like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth, according to Dr. Amit Sood, director of Complementary and Integrative Medicine and chairman of Mayo Mind Body Initiative at the Mayo Clinic.
- Another infertility clinic found pregnancy rates soared when patients were visited after treatment by a comedian who cracked jokes and performed magic tricks – again, strongly linking pregnancy to reduced stress. Dr. Shevach Friedler of the Assaf Harofeh Medical Centre in Zerifin, Israel, has documented that 93 women were visited by the comic while they were lying down for 15 minutes after embryos were implanted into their womb. A similar number were left alone. "To our surprise we found a significant difference," he said. "I didn't expect such a good result."
- Another important study published in the journal Human Reproduction found a strong link between stress and infertility. Courtney Lynch, director of reproductive epidemiology at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center, said it's common knowledge that women get pregnant while on vacation, or women with infertility problems become pregnant after adopting. She concluded it's not always coincidence. Again, the link is cortisol.
The studies have been widely reported this year, with headlines such as "Stress could double chance of infertility after year of trying, study finds" (The Guardian), followed by the sub-headline "U.S. scientists say women with high levels of stress enzyme have lower chance of becoming pregnant than those with low levels." Other headlines were "Study: Stress may reduce fertility" (CNN);and "Stress may be causing infertility in women" (London Daily Mail).
And yet no news organization or commentator mentioned the near-universal condemnation Akin experienced for making a very similar point in 2012. Previous stress-pregnancy studies, conducted over many years, have produced similar results, as Akin notes in his book.
"I think [Akin] was substantively right in the first place," affirms Jane Orient, M.D., executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons – "[he] just placed an adjective in a place where people determined to misunderstand him could do so."
Orient, who is also managing editor of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, added: "The question of whether pregnancy is less common from rape than from consensual sex can be debated. … But there is legitimate reason, backed by some authoritative opinion and pertinent evidence, to think it is indeed less common. Quoting medical authorities does not make one unfit for public office, even if other authorities disagree and the quotation is inartfully phrased."
'We should sink Todd Akin'
Akin hasn't given an interview to the media in 18 months. But he's going to break that silence with the release of "Firing Back" July 15.
What else does he have to say? Akin, commended in a foreword to the book written by Gov. Mike Huckabee for never resorting to ad hominem attacks on his political opponents, does not shy away from defending himself in "Firing Back:
- He points out his arguably awkward and misunderstood comment about rape came two weeks before a sexual predator and accused rapist, Bill Clinton, received a standing ovation for his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. He adds that the same convention memorialized a man, Ted Kennedy, who let a young woman he preyed on drown to save his reputation. (pp. 129-130)
- When Karl Rove, Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee abandoned Akin, he reminds that he was in a virtual tie with incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill. But then his opponent was able to run a devastating TV ad that asked the question: "Is Todd Akin fit to serve in the Senate? Mitt Romney doesn't think so." It closed with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., saying, "Frankly, he would not be welcome by Republicans in the United States Senate.” (p. 169)
- He takes on McCaskill, who won re-election by portraying herself as a "moderate." She said during the campaign: "Todd Akin would consider it an insult if you called him a moderate. I wear the term moderate like a badge of honor." Yet Akin points out she voted 98 percent of the time with President Obama and "continued to support Obamacare even after Missourians resoundingly rejected it." (p. 88)
- What does he want to get out of this book? Is it written for revenge? To restart his political career? No, Todd Akin wants what he always wanted – what drove him to run for Congress successfully in the first place: "Everywhere, freedom's enemies are busy twisting word meanings and attempting to force their opinions on others through what is known as 'political correctness.' We should resist this tactic by defending the truth and each other, especially those on our own team. We need to defend truth especially in those areas where liberals are attacking."
- On the rapid growth of the superstate: "Before you forsake the crisp air and bright light on the high road of freedom, look well at the velvet-padded chains of government dependency. Although the government chains are well padded, they are chains nonetheless. They threaten to hold America's soul in the gloom, where vision is lost, where monotony and cynicism rule, and where the fresh air and bright sunlight of freedom are only a memory."
The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom already has reported that Akin "lashed out" at Hillary Clinton for her work in defending a child rapist in 1975 and laughing about it in a taped interview.
For Akin, government doesn't have all the answers. But he truly believes there are answers to be found – or, perhaps, rediscovered.
"True freedom builds from the bottom up, and it starts with our 'selves,'" he writes in "Firing Back." "In early America, when people heard the word government, they would first think of how each of us, led by God's Spirit, manages his or her own life. They called it 'self-government.' They understood that the character of a citizen was critical to the nature of the country. A nation peopled by wise, hardworking, loving citizens would be altogether different from a nation of dishonest, self-seeking rogues." (p. 178)
But to be a self-governing people, there must be consensus on what is right and wrong, Akin suggests.
"Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities to return to good ideas and refute bad ideas is through the church," he writes. "Churches exist in part to warn people of the bad consequences of bad ideas and teach obedience to God's laws. The source of the Founders' good ideas was the Bible. They saw the beautiful harmony between God's Word and the natural world around them. Today, for all the good work our pastors do, many make the mistake of not applying the Bible to the critical issues of our day. This is probably one of the most urgently needed changes in America." (p. 182)