Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) opened up a can of controversy on Sunday when he claimed that women who are the victims of "legitimate rape" are unlikely to become pregnant. (Akin was defending his belief that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.) Then Akin, who is running against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill for Senate, issued the obligatory statement saying he simply misspoke and really feels very deeply for women who are raped.
But here's the thing: Akin didn't make this idea up. That women can't get pregnant when they're raped is a thing that some people actually believe. I stumbled across this several months ago while researching another story. It turns out to be an idea held and repeated by individuals who oppose abortion in any circumstance.
Read for yourself. John C. Willke, an anti-abortion doctor, writes on the website Christian Life Resources about how pregnancies resulting from rape are "extremely rare" because of hormones and stuff:
Finally, factor in what is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that's physical trauma. Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. 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.
In cases of rape, the rate of pregnancy is actually very rare. This is due to several factors which may affect conception. The victim is in immense emotional shock and her body in turn is affected. Statistics show that the rate of miscarriage is higher in these circumstances. A major factor contributing to the rare occurrence of conception in cases of rape is psychological trauma. Stress has been known to alter bodily functions, the menstrual cycle included. And in order for a woman to conceive a complex blend of hormones must be formed. The production of these certain hormones is easily affected by emotions, in which of course the rape itself factors in greatly. Hence, the chances of actual conception—ovulation, fertilization, implantation—for the rape victim are considerably lowered.
In 1998, Fay Boozman, a Republican candidate for Senate in Arkansas, got in trouble for embracing this idea. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Boozman said the inability to get pregnant from rape stemmed from "God's little protective shield"—a report Boozman denied before saying that it was in fact an "adrenaline rush" that prevented conception from rape.
The you-can't-get-pregnant-from-rape falsehood is apparently something that enough people believe that Planned Parenthood includes it on its pregnancy FAQ page.
Akin may be wrong, but he's got company.