The Todd Akin story continues. Yesterday the New York Times assembled expert opinion — Pam Belluck, “Health Experts Dismiss Assertions on Rape”, here — on the question of forcible rape and pregnancy. And today Akin’s refusal to withdraw from the Missouri Senate race was the top story in the paper. Here I’m interested in the way Belluck’s story is structured: although her intention was pretty clearly to have reputable authorities refute preposterous claims by anti-abortion spokesmen, the story ends up being a back-and-forth exchange between two sets of “experts” — one of those “balanced” presentations in which the loonies get equal time (though the true experts get the last word).
The background, from Belluck:
Representative Todd Akin’s assertion that women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant provoked outrage across the political spectrum, but the views he articulated are far from new in anti-abortion circles.
The idea that during rape, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy, as Mr. Akin said, has surfaced periodically among anti-abortion advocates over the past two decades, usually involving the term “forcible rape” to refer to what Mr. Akin called “legitimate.”
[Over on Language Log, Geoff Pullum has posted on the issue of legitimate rape. Initially he took the term to mean something like 'an act that is legitimately a rape', but then he discovered that Akin meant 'forcible rape', and that Akin's claims were part of a program to ban abortion in any circumstances whatever.]
So we start with the proposition that forcible rape rarely results in pregnancy, a proposition accepted by some in “anti-abortion circles”. Belluck then produces an M.D. from those circles:
Dr. John C. Willke, a general practitioner with obstetric training and a former president of the National Right to Life Committee, was an early proponent of this view, articulating it in a book originally published in 1985 and again in a 1999 article. He reiterated it in an interview Monday.
“This is a traumatic thing — she’s, shall we say, she’s uptight,” Dr. Willke said of a woman being raped, adding, “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.”
Counterposed to Willke are professors of obstetrics and gynecology:
Leading experts on reproductive health, however, dismissed this logic.
“There are no words for this — it is just nuts,” said Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. David Grimes, a clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina, said, that “to suggest that there’s some biological reason why women couldn’t get pregnant during a rape is absurd.”
Back to Akin’s side:
Mr. Akin’s statement did have supporters. Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, defended Mr. Akin on his program “Focal Point,” citing “John Willke, who is an M.D. by the way — a lot of these ignoramuses on Twitter are not.”
He read from Dr. Willke’s 1999 article, which described what is “certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that’s physical trauma.
He continued with the article: “To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. 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.”
Mr. Fischer concluded: “In other words, ladies and gentleman, Todd Akin was exactly right.”
… Dr. Willke, 87, asserted yesterday that “way under 1 percent” of rape victims become pregnant, not just because of female biology but because about half of rapists “do not deposit sperm in the vagina.” That, Dr. Willke said, is because many rapists have “a preference for rectal intercourse over vaginal”; experience “premature ejaculation, which is a major factor”; or “some of these guys just plain aren’t fertile.”
Finally, the professors get the last word:
But several experts said there is no solid data supporting such contentions. A 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, generally considered one of the few peer-reviewed research efforts on this subject, estimated that 5 percent of rapes result in pregnancy.
“Yeah, there are all sorts of hormones, including ones that cause your heart to beat fast when you’re frightened,” said Dr. Greene. But he added, “I’m not aware of any data that says that reduces a woman’s risk of getting pregnant.”
As for the contention that a rape victim’s fallopian tubes tighten, Dr. Grimes, formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “That’s nonsense. Everything is working. The tube is very small anyway and sperm are very tiny — they’re excellent swimmers.”
I’m assuming that Belluck thought that in this back-and-forth, the anti-abortion spokesmen would condemn themselves out of their own mouths, but the position they espouse is one with a lot of “common-sense” attractions — “it just stands to reason”, as people say — and also a long history (briefly noted in my previous posting), going back at least to medieval times, as medical and Church doctrine. I’m not sure that the opinions of modern academic medical experts, even framed in terms like “just nuts”, “absurd”, and “nonsense”, will be enough to counter the loonies.