Sarah Kliff writes at the Washington Post that Todd Akin is hardly the first Republican politician to advance the idea that women don’t get pregnant when they’re raped. This myth actually goes back a long way and comes up fairly regularly among the religious right.
But while Akin is wrong in his assertion about rape and pregnancy, he certainly isn’t alone. His remarks tapped into a strain of thinking that dates back to at least the 1980s, with anti-abortion politicians from Pennsylvania to Arkansas making the case that the trauma of rape can often prevent pregnancy. The argument does not come up frequently, but when it does, it nearly always leads to political controversy.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephen Freind (R) was an ardent abortion opponent. He authored legislation that included one of the the nation’s first abortion waiting periods, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
He also looks to be the first legislator to make the argument that rape prevents pregnancy, arguing in the late 1980s that the odds of a pregnancy resulting from rape were “one in millions and millions and millions.”
His explanation? The trauma of rape causes women to “secrete a certain secretion which has the tendency to kill sperm.” Reproductive health experts immediately denounced those remarks. One told the Philadelphia Inquirer, ”Boy, if I could find out what that [secretion] was, I’d use it as a contraceptive.”
The argument was dormant for about a decade, until the late 1990s. That’s when a North Carolina legislator, whom Garance Franke-Ruta points to, extended the argument to question whether there should actually be a rape exception from abortion restrictions,given that ”The facts show that people who are raped – truly raped – the juices don’t flow.”
Arkansas politician Fay Boozman followed up during during his 1998 Senate campaign by arguing that “fear-induced hormonal changes could block a rape victim’s ability to conceive.” Those remarks lead to a backlash when then-Gov. Mike Huckabee tappedBoozman to run the state’s health department.
The argument was most recently – and perhaps most fully – articulated by National Right to Life president John Wilke in a 1999 essay titled “Rape Pregnancies Are Rare.” Wilke made a pretty similar case to Akin: That the “physical trauma” of rape has a way of preventing pregnancy.
“To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones,” Wilke wrote. “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.”
There are several things going on here. First, there is the kind of virulent ignorance that I spoke about on C-SPAN in 2007; it isn’t just that these people don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s that they have swallowed whole a bunch of false claims that make them think they are educated on the subject. Second, we have classic motivated reasoning — they are emotionally committed to their anti-abortion position, so any factual claim that helps them advance that position is accepted as true upon mere assertion.
Third, we have the routine advance of false memes that become part of this organic body of knowledge, things that everyone just “knows” even when they don’t really know them. There are lots of other examples, of course. The one that comes to mind immediately, and that I have heard repeated so often that I just shake my head when some ignorant dolt says it, is the old canard that we only use 10% of our brains.