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Recent publicity over Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s ill-advised comment that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy (a comment he later retracted) has brought the science of the matter into the media limelight. That bit of controversial science consists of an analysis by respected pro-life advocate and retired general practitioner John Willke. Dr. Willke’s leadership in the pro-life movement has justifiably brought him a great deal of respect. His opinion on the prevalence of pregnancy following forcible assault has, however, raised questions about the biology of human reproduction and diverted attention from the central issue. Furthermore, Congressman Akin, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has now become a controversial figure in the nation as America heads towards national elections in November.
Of additional concern to a ministry like AiG that seeks to uphold good science and medical practices is how the controversy has spilled over into the evolution/creation debate. Secularists, such as a Vanity Fair columnist on August 24,1 have likened Dr. Willke’s medical opinion to the “junk science” of creationism. For these reasons, and also because I am a gynecologist, I am weighing in on this issue.
Willke’s opinion that rape only rarely results in pregnancy is based on his own review of statistics concerning the probability of viable pregnancy occurring from a single incident and the statistics describing the crime itself.
Willke’s opinion that rape only rarely results in pregnancy is based on his own review of statistics concerning the probability of viable pregnancy occurring from a single incident and the statistics describing the crime itself. He recognizes the great emotional trauma associated with sexual assault. For three decades, Dr. Willke has maintained his opinion that this emotional trauma can “radically upset [the victim’s] possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing a pregnancy.” His belief is based on the fact that the hormones influencing human reproduction are strongly influenced by emotion, though he freely admits that no one knows how much this acute trauma decreases the pregnancy risk and therefore suggests his own estimates.2
A realistic, controlled scientific study of this subject is beyond the reach of either pro-life or pro-abortion advocates due to a number of obvious problems.3 Furthermore, conclusions may magnify biases when extrapolated and applied to whole populations. Nevertheless, a 1996 study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology supports what we know of the biology of reproduction. That study of 404 rape victims aged 12 to 45 concluded that the chance of pregnancy was about 5%.4 A 2012 gynecology text estimates between 2 and 5%.5
What we know of the human reproductive system doesn’t provide the reliable off-switch we wish it had. Stress-induced infertility is documented with chronic stress, not acute trauma. The hormonal and ovarian factors promoting ovulation may be well underway when trauma occurs. Implantation depends on hormonal preparation of the uterine lining, and that is directly dependent on ovarian hormonal production, independent of emotions.6 And sperm survive in the reproductive tract of a woman for a period of time regardless of a victim’s emotional state. Therefore obstetricians and gynecologists generally consider the probability of pregnancy occurring as a result of an assault to be about the same as when no assault is involved. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has issued a statement saying the suggestion that a sufficiently stressed assault victim’s body acquires some sort of control over ovulation, fertilization, and implantation “contradicts basic biological truths.”7
Though we all wish the evils one human inflicts on another had no lasting consequences, minimizing those consequences, even statistically, does not make them less real. And, as a gynecologist, I can attest that the risk of pregnancy is only one of the repercussions of this heinous crime. The physical risks of disease, injury, and unwanted pregnancy are only the beginning. A victim’s life can be forever changed as she deals with her own fears, flashbacks, self-recrimination, difficulty forming trusting relationships, and even the social stigma that exists even in our enlightened society. Furthermore, a decision to abort a pregnancy imposes the additional burden of guilt on a woman, for the baby growing within her is guiltless of the crime.
The central issue here is not whether the number of pregnancies following assaults is significant. Some people might even consider a 2-5% risk “rare,” but that isn’t the point. The moral issues related to pregnancy have to be faced regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy. The embryo is either a human life of value or it isn't, regardless of the situation concerning the baby’s origins. Pro-abortion advocates naturally play the “what about rape” card to tug at the heartstrings of the public and the fears of politicians. And as Dr. Jane Orient, a practicing internist and executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, has noted, “Politicians who claim to be pro-life are often adamant about preserving an exception for rape or incest,”8 but this exception ignores “the reality of what an abortion is.”9
As we pray for a national return to the truth that an unborn child of any age is a human life of value in the sight of our Creator and deserves legal protection from murder in a just society, we should not be sidetracked by playing a numbers game to exaggerate or minimize how many “little murders” might be “acceptable.” God knows the circumstances surrounding every child’s conception as well as the heartaches of its mother, and our hearts should continue to echo and imitate His love and concern. Psalm 139:13–16 describes our heavenly Father’s concern both for the unborn and for each woman who for whatever reason finds herself pregnant.
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