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Health Experts Denounce Rep. Akin's Remarks on 'Legitimate Rape'

Health Experts Denounce Rep. Akin's Remarks on 'Legitimate Rape'

August 21, 2012 — Health experts on Monday denounced Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) claim that pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape" is rare, adding that abortion-rights opponents have circulated similar claims for two decades, the New York Times reports (Belluck, New York Times, 8/20).

During an interview on the St. Louis television station KTVI on Sunday, Akin was asked whether he supports abortion in cases of rape. "It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," Akin said about pregnancies resulting from rape. He added, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways of trying to shut that whole thing down." Akin noted that he opposes abortion in cases of rape. "[T]he punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child," he said (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/20).

The notion that a woman's ability to become pregnant is somehow diminished in cases of rape has been promulgated by John Willke -- a physician and former president of the National Right to Life Committee -- since 1985, and he continues to espouse the claim today. In an interview with the Times, Willke said that because a women's "tubes are spastic" and "she's uptight" during a rape, it makes it less likely that conception will occur.

Health experts were quick to point out that there is no medical basis for this assertion (New York Times, 8/20). A study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that more than 30,000 pregnancies result from rape annually (Kliff [1], "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 8/20). A separate study published in 2003 in the journal Human Nature found that rapes are twice as likely to result in pregnancies as consensual sex.

"There's no basis to what [Akin is] saying," Jonathan Gottschall, who co-authored the 2003 study, said. "If anything, the evidence is the opposite: Rape victims have a higher likelihood of conceiving, per-incident of intercourse," he added. Although he acknowledged the study could have methodological flaws, separate data suggest anywhere from 1% to 10% of rapes result in pregnancy, according to Politico (Robillard, Politico, 8/20).

Gottschall and co-author Tiffani Gottschall -- both professors at St. Lawrence University -- have suggested various theories as to why rape survivors have a higher pregnancy rate than women who have consensual sex. For example, unlike consensual sex, women cannot decline intercourse at a time when they are more likely to become pregnant (Kliff [2], "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 8/20). Contraception plays a significant role, particularly in incest cases and when abusive partners coerce women into pregnancy (Kotz, "Daily Dose," Boston Globe, 8/20).

Further, claims that downplay the frequency of pregnancies resulting from rape have long coincided with efforts to eliminate exceptions for cases of rape or incest in abortion bans and other antiabortion-rights legislation (Franke-Ruta, The Atlantic, 8/20). Most recently, Akin was among 227 co-sponsors of a bill this year that would have narrowed exceptions to a ban on federal funding for abortion to "forcible rape" (Kliff [1], "Wonkblog, Washington Post, 8/20).

President Obama, Republicans React

President Obama at a White House press briefing on Monday called Akin's remarks "offensive" and "way out there," the Washington Post reports (Nakamura, Washington Post, 8/20). Akin's comments "underscore ... why we shouldn't have a bunch of politicians, the majority of which are men, making decisions that affect health of women," Obama said.

The Obama campaign attempted to tie Akin to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.). Meanwhile, Romney and Ryan attempted to distance themselves from the comments (Easley/Parnes, The Hill, 8/20). "I have an entirely different view," Romney told the National Review, adding, "What [Akin] said is entirely without merit" (Shear, "The Caucus," New York Times, 8/20).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) -- the party's chief Senate campaign strategist -- called for Akin to withdraw from the Senate race in Missouri (Kane/Henderson, Washington Post, 8/20).

The National Republican Senatorial Committee pledged to end financial support for Akin, including $5 million in television advertisements that had been reserved for his race. Republican campaign officials said that if Akin drops out by Tuesday night, the committee will be able to choose a replacement to run in the November election against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) (Weisman/Eligon, New York Times, 8/20).

Akin, His Supporters Respond

Akin pledged to remain in the Senate race, Politico reports (Martin et al., Politico, 8/20).

Some social conservatives expressed support for Akin. Connie Mackey, the head of the Family Research Council's political action committee, said the group supports Akin "fully and completely" and called on Republicans to support his candidacy (Helderman [1], "Election 2012 Blog," Washington Post, 8/20). Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, also defended Akin, adding that his opponents are "making a big thing about an unfortunate remark" (Helderman [2], "Election 2012 Blog," Washington Post, 8/20).

GOP Platform To Call for Constitutional Abortion Ban

In related news, the Republican Party is set to endorse, as part of its official platform, support for a constitutional ban on abortion that does not contain exemptions for rape or incest, CNN reports. "[W]e assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed," draft language of the platform states. The platform also will reiterate the party's opposition to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and health insurance coverage of abortion care, according to CNN.

The draft platform also includes a "salute" to recognize states' enactment of "informed consent" laws, "mandatory waiting periods prior to an abortion, and health-protective clinic regulation." The language is mostly similar to the party's platforms from 2000, 2004 and 2008, CNN reports (Hamby, CNN, 8/21).