Shutting it down

Alternative explanations of female reproduction

A serious gaffe by Republican Representative Todd Akin has raised questions about the extent of some Republican pro-life activists’ knowledge about human reproduction. On August 9, while being interviewed on Missouri’s KTVI-TV, an interviewer asked whether abortion should be acceptable in cases of rape. Akin responded: “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.”

Numerous Republican politicians have begun to distance themselves from Akin. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Akin’s comments were “inexcusable, insulting, and frankly, wrong” and called for his withdrawal from the race. Even the indefatigable Ann Coulter called Akin a “selfish swine” and suggested a write-in campaign in Missouri to salvage Republican chances in the state.  While Akin subsequently apologized for his comments, saying he “used the wrong words in the wrong way,” the fact remains that reproduction knowledge amongst some pro-lifers is obscured by scientific arguments that give no credence to fact.

Akin’s fundamental argument appears to be that a woman’s body requires orgasm – or at least pleasure – for a pregnancy to be viable. If sex is coerced, and not pleasurable, pregnancy would be impossible and the female body would “shut down” the gestational process. By way of lampooning Akin, some have argued that his beliefs were medically correct – as long as your point of medical reference lies with ancient medical theorists like Galen of Pergamon. Yet while many medieval Galenic doctors did hold that pregnancy required female pleasure and orgasm, they would be loath to agree wholly with Akin. Galenic doctors never argued that a woman’s body could “shut down” pregnancy after intercouse, and medieval courts never overturned a rape conviction when the victim became pregnant.

Interestingly, Akin is not the first Republican politician to declare that in the case of rape, a woman’s body can spontaneously prevent a pregnancy, and he will likely not be the last.

In 1980, Arkansas attorney John Leon Holmes published a letter concerning his pro-life politics reading, “Concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.” In 2003, Holmes was nominated to the United States District Court by George Bush, where, during confirmation hearings, he apologized for the remarks, calling their rhetoric “strident and harsh.”

In 1988, a Republican state representative from Pennsylvania, Stephen Freind, stated in a radio interview that the chances of pregnancy from rape were “one in millions and millions,” and that “[after being raped] a woman secretes a certain secretion, which has the tendency to kill sperm.” Freind apologized for the comments, saying they were “hyperbole,” but maintained that the pregnancy rate for female rape survivors was lower than for those who engaged in consensual sex.

Lastly, in 1995, Henry Aldridge, a Republican member of the North Carolina House of Representatives (and a dentist!) ignited controversy during a hearing as to whether or not to eliminate abortion funding for low-income women. Aldridge remarked that, “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. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.”

So, while the Republican party of 2012 might be distancing itself from claims that rape cannot lead to pregnancy, it is clear that, at least to some pro-lifers, the science behind female reproduction is beholden to something other than scientific objectivity.