Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" belief likely stems from University of Minnesota paper

The academic origin of Akin's bizarre rape belief traces back to Dr. Mecklenburg (lower left).
The academic origin of Akin's bizarre rape belief traces back to Dr. Mecklenburg (lower left).

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's troubling "legitimate rape" view may have its origins in an academic paper written in 1972 by a University of Minnesota professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch traces the lineage of Akin's widely decried belief to Dr. Fred Mecklenburg's "The Indications for Induced Abortion: A Physician's Perspective." In that 40-year-old paper, Mecklenburg builds a case that a woman traumatized by forcible rape "will not ovulate even if she is 'scheduled' to."

From the Post-Dispatch:

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."

As you'd expect, Mecklenburg's view has been repeatedly discredited over the last four decades. For instance, Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Post-Dispatch that "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."

Other experts, citing the fact that rapes often aren't reported, don't buy the notion that major cities have ever gone years without a rape-induced pregnancy. In fact, a 2003 study in the journal Human Nature found that rape victims are twice as likely to become pregnant as women who have consensual sex because couples who have consensual sex more often use contraception.

But despite the level-headed rebukes provided by medical experts like Levy, Mecklenburg's view has been resurrected by a number of anti-abortion activists over the years, perhaps most notably by John C. Willke, former president of the National Right to Life Committee.

Willke wrote a book defending the raped-women-don't-get-pregnant view in 1985, then followed up with a paper on the topic in 1999. On Monday, the day after Akin made his controversial comments, Willke defended the view again, saying: "[Rape] is a traumatic thing -- she's, shall we say, she's uptight. 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."

Willke was defending the now-notorious comments made by U.S. Representative Akin during an interview with a St. Louis TV station on Sunday. Akin, citing "doctors" (i.e., Willke, who is a certified general practitioner), said:

Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. 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. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

Turns out Akin's view doesn't have its origins in some idiosyncratic (mis)understanding of the mechanics of conception. Rather, it likely stems from a paper penned by a professor at Minnesota's jewel of higher education.

-- Hat-tip: Bob Collins

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