Examining The Truth About Rape And Pregnancy

All Things Considered host Melissa Block talks with Nick Baumann of Mother Jones magazine about the belief at the core of Missouri state Rep. Todd Akin's furor-raising statement over the weekend: that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy. The belief that hormones or adrenaline protect women from conception during rape has been perpetuated for decades in American political discourse, without scientific basis. Studies have found approximately 5 percent of rapes result in pregnancy.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The false claim that legitimate rape or forcible rape doesn't cause pregnancy has been kicking around for decades. Here to run through some earlier statements is Nick Baumann, who's written about this for Mother Jones. Nick, thanks for coming in.

NICK BAUMANN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Let's go back to 1998 and a statement from Fay Boozman, the late Fay Boozman of Arkansas. He was running for U.S. Senate, and he said fear-induced hormonal changes could block a rape victim's ability to conceive. What happened after that?

BAUMANN: This was said in a pretty small setting in a club meeting, and it got little notice until a local columnist wrote it up and used the phrase God's protective little shield to refer to Boozman's argument that legitimate rape couldn't result in conception.

Now, that columnist now says Boozman himself never said that phrase, but the phrase drew national attention. And when the Associated Press and The Washington Post followed up with Boozman, he said: Well, basically I do believe that there's an adrenaline rush that prevents conception during legitimate rape or forcible rape. And there's no truth to that, but that's what he believes.

BLOCK: Fay Boozman lost that race for Senate. He did go on to be tapped by then Governor Mike Huckabee to run Arkansas' Health Department. Another example from 1995 - this is North Carolina State Representative Henry Aldridge, who said: The facts show that people who are raped, who are truly raped, the juices don't flow, the body functions don't work and they don't get pregnant.

And a similar statement turns up from 1988. Pennsylvania Republican State Representative Steven Friend says: The odds of a woman becoming pregnant through rape are one in millions and millions and millions. He says, the trauma of rape causes women to secrete a certain secretion - those are his words - which has a tendency to kill sperm.

What are the facts here, though, Nick? What are the latest statistics on pregnancy that does, in fact, result from rape?

BAUMANN: So, as far as we can tell from CDC and medical studies and Planned Parenthood's released some numbers of their own, there are tens of thousands of pregnancies from rape in the U.S. each year. And about 5 percent of women who are raped get pregnant. About half of those pregnancies end in abortion.

BLOCK: And the thinking would be - to the extent that there is logic here - that if you follow this through, if you are pregnant as a result of rape, it couldn't have been forcible because you wouldn't have gotten pregnant, right? So, therefore, there's no need for an exemption to abortion laws. Right?

BAUMANN: That's right. It's a very convenient idea for people who oppose abortion in all cases to embrace because, if there are no pregnancies from rape, then you don't need to make an exception for it. But, in fact, there are pregnancies from rape.

BLOCK: As we heard, Nick, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act last year - this is the bill that Paul Ryan and many other Republicans co-sponsored - originally called for an exemption only for something called forcible rape. Why was that language included in the original bill?

BAUMANN: So, forcible rape is sort of a fudged term. It doesn't really have a clear definition in federal law and it would have been chaos, state by state, for states to decide what that actually meant and what was included. But one thing that pretty much everyone agreed was not included in forcible rape was statutory rape.

And top lobbyists in the pro-life community, the top lobbyists for the Catholic bishops and the top lobbyists for the National Right to Life Committee, they believe that Planned Parenthood and pro-choice groups were planning to use this existing language, the language without forcible, to claim that any time a teenager got pregnant, it was really statutory rape. And, therefore, if a teenager wanted to have an abortion, the government should pay for it.

Now, there's no evidence that Planned Parenthood or the pro-choice groups are planning this. And when I asked them about it, they said they weren't. But that's what they were supposedly trying to prevent.

BLOCK: And, ultimately, that word, forcible, was removed from the language.

BAUMANN: Yeah. Ultimately, there was a huge backlash against it. There was a campaign called the Dear John campaign, where people wrote letters to John Boehner. There's a lot of activism by women's groups and progressive groups. But the interesting thing is, as with the Todd Akin controversy this year, you saw a lot of Republicans say that it didn't represent them and it went too far. And I think that was a big part of why they decided to steer clear of that forcible language.

BLOCK: Nick Baumann, news editor with Mother Jones, thank you.

BAUMANN: Thanks.

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