Right-to-life advocates for decades have cited a medical notion that rape victims rarely get pregnant, now widely dismissed by experts.
ST. LOUIS — “The question of rape always stirs the emotions whenever it is introduced into the abortion debate,” Dr. Fred Mecklenburg wrote in 1972. “Unfortunately, the emotional impact of rape often clouds the real issues and the real facts.”
Mecklenburg — an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Minnesota Medical School at the time — could not have known how prescient his words would feel 40 years later.
While U.S. Rep. Todd Akin cited only “doctors” as his source of information about the rarity of pregnancy resulting from rape, it is two pages, from Mecklenburg’s 1972 article, “The Indications for Induced Abortion: A Physician’s Perspective,” that have influenced two generations of anti-abortion-rights activists hoping to build a medical case to ban all abortions without exception.
The idea that during rape, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy, as Akin said, has surfaced periodically, usually involving the term “forcible rape” to refer to what Akin called “legitimate.”
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Dr. John Willke, a general practitioner with obstetric training and a former president of the National Right to Life Committee, was an early proponent of this view, also articulating it in a 1985 book and again in a 1999 article. He reiterated it to The New York Times on Monday.
“This is a traumatic thing — she’s, shall we say, she’s uptight,” Willke said of a woman being raped, adding, “She is frightened, tight and so on. And sperm, if deposited in her vagina, are less likely to be able to fertilize. The tubes are spastic.”
Leading experts on reproductive health, however, dismissed this logic.
“There are no words for this — it is just nuts,” said Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. David Grimes, a clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina, said that “to suggest that there’s some biological reason why women couldn’t get pregnant during a rape is absurd.”
As for the contention that a rape victim’s fallopian tubes tighten, Grimes said, “That’s nonsense. Everything is working. The tube is very small anyway and sperm are very tiny — they’re excellent swimmers.”
Akin’s statement did have supporters. Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, defended Akin on his program “Focal Point,” citing “John Willke, who is an M.D. by the way — a lot of these ignoramuses on Twitter are not.”
He read from Willke’s 1999 article, which described what is “certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that’s physical trauma.”
He continued with the article: “To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. 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.”
Fischer concluded: “In other words, ladies and gentleman, Todd Akin was exactly right.”
“Extremely rare” event
In Mecklenburg’s original article, he wrote that pregnancy resulting from rape “is extremely rare” and cited as an example the city of Buffalo, N.Y., which had not seen “a pregnancy from confirmed rape in over 30 years.” Other cities — Chicago, Washington, St. Paul — also had experienced lengthy spells without a rape-caused pregnancy, Mecklenburg wrote.
The reasons were numerous: Not all rapes result in “a completed act of intercourse,” Mecklenburg wrote, adding it was “improbable” a rape would occur “on the 1-2 days of the month in which the woman would be fertile.”
Mecklenburg’s third reason seems to have been picked up by Akin. A woman exposed to the trauma of rape, Mecklenburg wrote, “will not ovulate even if she is ‘scheduled’ to.”
But a host of other research disputes Mecklenburg’s conclusions both on the scarcity of pregnancy after rape and natural defenses to prevent conception.
“From a scientific standpoint, what’s legitimate and fair to say is that a woman who is raped has the same chances of getting pregnant as a woman who engaged in consensual intercourse during the same time in her menstrual cycle,” said Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
One widely accepted study suggests a 5 percent pregnancy rate following rape, resulting in 32,000 pregnancies each year. The report was from the Medical University of South Carolina and was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But placing an exact figure on post-rape pregnancy is problematic, primarily because rape is thought to be underreported. Another factor is the availability of over-the-counter emergency contraception, which can prevent fertilization when taken after sex.
One study from the journal Human Nature in 2003 suggests pregnancy rates are higher after a rape when compared with consensual sex because of the inconsistency of birth-control use.
Mecklenburg’s article was one of 19 in a book called “Abortion and Social Justice,” published a year before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
In supporting his claim about trauma and ovulation, Mecklenburg cited experiments conducted in Nazi death camps.
The Nazis tested this hypothesis “by selecting women who were about to ovulate and sending them to the gas chambers, only to bring them back after their realistic mock-killing, to see what the effect this had on their ovulatory patterns. An extremely high percentage of these women did not ovulate.”
Finally, Mecklenburg said it was likely that the rapists — because of “frequent masturbation” — were unlikely to be fertile themselves.
The book was edited by a doctor and a lawyer, and funded by Americans United for Life, the major legal arm of the anti-abortion movement.
The dissemination of Mecklenburg’s article may have had more to do with the influence of his wife, Marjory, an early opponent of abortion rights who was a chairwoman of the National Right to Life Committee and director of the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs in the Reagan administration.
Today, Mecklenburg is the former chairman of the OB/GYN department at Inova Women’s Hospital in Falls Church, Va. He did not return a call for comment.
Information from The New York Times is included.