Legitimate Rape: Todd Akin And The Case From History

Commentary | My first impression upon hearing about Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” quote was to interpret it to mean “a valid reason to rape.” This interpretation infers that Senator Akin himself believes there are scenarios in which someone could justify raping another person. Very few editorials, news reports, and radio shows bothered to mention the full context of the story. They just keep quoting “legimitate rape” and how bad it is that Senator Akin said it.

I think this first impression covers the majority of people out there based upon the worldwide reaction. The Republican Party hurried to distance itself from Senator Akin despite the party platform providing no exemption for rape in their abortion plan. Even Rush Limbaugh was talking about it not too long ago. Whatever Senator Akin meant by his statement, it’s evident that he has a PR nightmare.

I did not think there was much more to it until a friend attempted to explain the reasoning of pro-life advocates. The real story gets into centuries of medical and law history, recent events, and the lies forming the foundation of modern law.

Even if Senator Akin did not want to appear to be legitimizing rape, unfortunately, what he did say was based upon science and law now argued to be false or at least controversial. Here is the full quote from Akin:

“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.”

Akin was defending his belief that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. Historically, it was widely thought a woman could only conceive if she had an orgasm. Logic follows that if a pregnant woman claims rape then she is lying. This idea finds its roots in the 13th century British legal text Fleta.

“If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman’s consent she could not conceive.”

More recently, in 1814, Samuel Farr wrote Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, which stated:

“For without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place. So that if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated, it is not likely she would become pregnant.”

This specific idea is no longer accepted by anyone, but the general concept persists. The modern belief is that a combination of psychic trauma and the lack of coital lubricants somehow will prevent or at least reduce the chance of pregnancy. According to troubledteensinfo.com:

“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.”

So we have one side claiming that pregnancy from rape is extremely rare and those like Planned Parenthood who cite the 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology which claims the number is as high as five percent based upon surveys. It’s even claimed by RAINN.org that “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.” There is the common claim that one in four female college students are raped and 90 percent of rapes go unreported. Some even claim that rape results in more pregnancies than normal sex. All of these numbers from both sides are statistical estimates that tend to be biased either way in their calculations. Obviously, it’s impossible to determine the complete truth through scientific tests without defying ethical limits.

But, to provide contrast, a 1998 study in Contraception lists a woman’s average rate of pregnancy after unprotected sex:

  • three days prior to ovulation: 15 percent chance of pregnancy
  • one to two days prior to ovulation: 30 percent chance of pregnancy
  • Within 24 hours of ovulation: 12 percent chance of pregnancy
  • one to two days after ovulation: Around zero percent chance of pregnancy

It’s possible the original surveys of rape victims could be re-analyzed to discover the timing of the rape in relation to ovulation. This might serve as a baseline for comparing pregnant rape victims against normally conceived pregnancy.

So, taking this all in mind, what Senator Akin apparently meant by “legitimate” might be “actual,” although he’s failed to quantify his exact meaning. The usage of the word “actual” presumes that if a woman becomes pregnant but then claims rape afterwards that she might be lying, which is even more muddier waters than the main topic. The reason why this comes up at all in modern times is because Norma McCorvey of Roe vs. Wade initially fabricated her account of being raped at a circus in order to circumvent the Texas laws of the time. Not until 1987 did she reveal that the baby was actually conceived “through what I thought was love.”

How often are falsified statements made? Rebecca Kiesling, a woman who was conceived by rape and suffered from domestic violence, says in an article on LifeNews.com that, according to the Encyclopedia of Violence: Origins, Attitudes, Consequences (1993), that “while researchers and prosecutors do not agree on the exact percentage of false allegations, they generally agree on a range of 2% to 8%.”

So, whether or not you agree with ideas representing Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, the repercussions of these ideas and actions find their way into modern politics. Hopefully, we can all find a middle ground without resorting to antagonistic discourse.