If you haven't heard yet, it's time you did: yesterday afternoon, U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin said in a televised interview that women rarely get pregnant following instances of "legitimate rape," because the female body has ways to "shut that whole thing down."
Akin is wrong. He is wrong on many levels, but most importantly he's wrong about basic medical facts governing how the female body works. So let's take a step back and examine Akin's statement from a scientific angle, with the help of some relevant, peer-reviewed publications.
First things first. Here's the actual quote that, yesterday afternoon, incited the ire and incredulity of just about anyone with a brain, a pulse, and the misfortune of hearing or reading it. Akin's assertion comes in response to a question about whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape (a video of the exchange is also featured up top):
It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that [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.
Go ahead and read that again. Replay the video if you have to. Try to absorb every iota of what Akin is saying. For the record: your mind should be reeling. Did Akin really just assert that some cases of rape are more "legitimate" than others, WHILE arguing that a woman can depend on her body to stave off pregnancy when her efforts to prevent a man from forcing himself upon her fail? In the same breath? All under the banner of medical and scientific evidence? Did that really just happen?
Yeah. Yeah, it did.
Let's set aside, for the moment, the fact that rape is rape, and that modifiers like "legitimate" and "forcible" (another term Akin has paired with "rape" in the past) are so fraught with ignorance and dishonesty as to warrant their own well-reasoned, thoroughly researched analyses elsewhere. (Here are three such articles, by The Guardian, Jezebel and New Statesman, to get you started.) For now, let's just focus on the "medical" claim he's making.
Rape-Related Pregnancy By The Numbers
Let's look at the science. After all, Representative Akin (who is a sitting congressman in Missouri, and will run against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill for a seat in the U.S. Senate in this year's election cycle) is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; if anyone in Washington is qualified to speak to the medical and scientific evidence surrounding abortion, rape, and pregnancy, surely it is a member of the House Committee on Science. Right?
Evidently not. "It seems to me," opines Akin, "from what I understand from doctors, that [pregnancy from rape] is really rare." We may never know whether the doctors Akin is referring to even exist (outside of the congressman's ill-advised attempt to legitimize his baseless argument), but a 3-year longitudinal study involving over 4,000 adult American women stands in staunch opposition to their spurious claims. The entire article, which is published in a 1996 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology is relevant to our analysis, but here's the bit that Akin and his doctors really need to read:
Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency. It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence. As we address the epidemic of unintended pregnancies in the United States, greater attention and effort should be aimed at preventing and identifying unwanted pregnancies that result from sexual victimization.
If you're looking for hard numbers, the study concludes that the national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age (12—45), and that an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. Does 32,000 pregnancies per annum sound "rare" to you? It's not.
Five percent may not sound like much, but the fact is that couples trying to have kids would be ecstatic over a five percent chance of pregnancy per sexual encounter; what's more, a study published in 2003 in the journal Human Nature found that a single act of rape was more than twice as likely to result in pregnancy than an act of consensual sex:
"Our analysis suggests that per-incident rape-pregnancy rates exceed per-incident consensual pregnancy rates by a sizable margin," write researchers Jon and Tiffani Gottschall, "even before adjusting for the use of relevant forms of birth control." [emphasis mine]
Again, here are the numbers: the researchers examined data collected from 405 women between the ages of 12 and 45 who had suffered a single incidence of penile-vaginal rape, and found that 6.4 percent of these women became pregnant. This number leapt to almost 8% when the researchers accounted for women who'd been using birth control (according to New Scientist, US government statistics show that 20% of the women in the sample were likely to have been using the pill or an IUD). A separate study, conducted by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2001, found the per-incidence pregnancy rate for a single act of consensual sex to be just 3.1 percent.
In light of these studies and statistics, it's almost not even worth addressing Akin's assertion that the female body has ways to "shut that whole thing [i.e. pregnancy] down" in cases of "legitimate rape"; but what the congressman seems to be referring to is post-copulatory sexual selection, a real technique used by some female animals to actively control which males will father their offspring. For example, as this episode of Isabella Rossellini's award-winning Green Porno series explains, the labyrinthine vaginal canals of female ducks allow them to hide their eggs from undesirable males. The ability to store and select sperm from multiple potential mates (a form of post-copulatory sexual selection thought to have evolved in response to the risk of unsolicited sexual encounters, and ironically named "female choice") has also been observed in reptiles, spiders and insects.
But humans don't have labyrinthine vaginal canals. They also don't actively store and select sperm from multiple males inside their bodies. And if there are any hormonal responses at play in a post-copulatory sexual response — as is hypothesized to occur in some species of monkeys — the studies we referenced earlier clearly demonstrate that they certainly aren't powerful enough to warrant calling pregnancy among rape victims "rare."
Congressman Akin has since backed away from his remark, saying that he "misspoke" during the interview, though he has still failed to mention which point (or points) he's referring to.
"In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks," Akin said in a statement released yesterday afternoon, "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."
This is a half-assed explanation, and a sorry excuse for an apology (if you can even call it that). Perhaps more shocking is that Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. In that role, he should be required to address the spurious nature of his comments by responding to the hard, scientific evidence that he was not simply wrong, but basing his understanding of reproduction on opinion rather than medical facts.
Top photo via AP