WASHINGTON — Four months ago, when then-Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Missouri, claimed that abortion in cases of rape was unnecessary because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” the GOP renounced him. Republican leaders called him an outlier. The National Republican Senatorial Committee pledged not to lift a finger for him.
But the problem spread. A day after Akin’s gaffe, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, deflected a question about abortions for 12-year-old rape victims by saying, “I just haven’t heard of that being a circumstance that’s been brought to me in any personal way.” On Oct. 18, Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., asserted that “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance” where abortion is necessary to protect a woman’s life or health. On Oct. 23, Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, opined that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” And five days before the election, as the Missouri GOP put up $380,000 for last-minute ads to boost Akin, the Republican Senatorial Committee sent the state party $760,000, apparently to cover the cost.
Now another Republican leader is speaking up. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, a 10-year congressman and co-chairman of the 21-member House Republican Doctors Caucus, is defending Akin’s remark. At a chamber of commerce breakfast Jan. 10, Gingrey argued:
"What he meant by 'legitimate rape' was just, 'Look, someone can say, "I was raped." A scared-to-death 15-year-old that becomes impregnated by her boyfriend and then has to tell her parents — that’s pretty tough, and might on some occasion say, ‘Hey, I was raped.’ That’s what he meant when he said legitimate rape versus non-legitimate rape. I don’t find anything so horrible about that.”
Really? That isn’t how Akin explained his remark. On Aug. 20, a day after the gaffe, Akin went on Mike Huckabee’s radio show. Huckabee asked Akin: “What did you mean by ‘legitimate rape’? Were you attempting to say forcible rape?” Akin replied: “Yeah, I was talking about forcible rape.” If that’s truly what Akin meant, then he was using the term legitimate to suggest that any woman impregnated by rape must have suffered statutory rape, not forcible rape.
Gingrey’s interpretation is different. He thinks that in speaking of “non-legitimate rape,” Akin was referring not to a 15-year-old who admits she had voluntary sex with an adult boyfriend (i.e., statutory rape) but to a 15-year-old who tells her parents, falsely, that her voluntary sex, with a male of whatever age, was forcible rape. On this view, Akin was using the term legitimate to suggest that a woman who claims to have gotten pregnant from rape wasn’t raped at all. She’s simply lying. And what does Gingrey think of that claim? “I don’t find anything so horrible about that.”
That’s Gingrey’s moral view. His medical view is more complex, but still ignorant. At the breakfast, he conceded that the stress of rape doesn’t preclude pregnancy, since the woman “may have already ovulated 12 hours before she is raped.” But he defended Akin’s reasoning:
“He went on and said that in a situation of rape, of a legitimate rape, a woman’s body has a way of shutting down so the pregnancy would not occur. He’s partly right on that. ... It is true. We tell infertile couples all the time that are having trouble conceiving because of the woman not ovulating, ‘Just relax. Drink a glass of wine. And don’t be so tense and uptight, because all that adrenaline can cause you not to ovulate.’ So he was partially right wasn’t he? ... And yet the media took that and tore it apart.”
If Gingrey is telling this to his patients — and prescribing alcohol for it — he’s a quack. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “While chronic stress, for example from extreme exposure to famine or war, may decrease a woman’s ability to conceive, there is no scientific evidence that adrenaline, experienced in an acute stress situation, has an impact on ovulation.” The American Society for Reproductive Medicine agrees: “There isn’t any proof that stress causes infertility.” Another infertility organization, Resolve, says “stress does not cause infertility.”
Gingrey might also benefit from reading this 2010 paper in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology: “Acute stress may induce ovulation in women.” Or this 1996 paper in the same journal:
“The national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0 percent per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45); among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. Among 34 cases of rape-related pregnancy, the majority occurred among adolescents and resulted from assault by a known, often related perpetrator.”
So much for the dogma about stress, shutdowns, and fabricated rapes. But Gingrey didn’t stop there. He also whitewashed Mourdock’s remarks: “Mourdock basically said ‘Look, if there is conception in the aftermath of a rape, that’s still a child, and it’s a child of God, essentially.’ Now, in Indiana, that cost him the election.”
Wrong again. Mourdock didn’t say a child of rape is a child of God. He said, “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Children don’t happen. They aren’t events. Conceptions happen, and in the case of rape, there’s no conception without assault. You can spin whatever theological distinctions you like, but if you say God intended that conception, you’re implying that God intended the rape.
A day after the breakfast, Gingrey pretended his comments had been misinterpreted. “I do not defend, nor do I stand by, the remarks made by Rep. Akin and Mr. Mourdock,” he said. “In my attempt to provide context as to what I presumed they meant, my position was misconstrued.” Hogwash. Gingrey tried to rewrite Mourdock’s lunacy as a pro-life cliché. He said Akin “was partially right ... and yet the media took that and tore it apart.” That’s a defense.
Akin, King, Walsh, Mourdock. A plurality of Republican nominees for the U.S. Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee. Now, the chairman of the Republican Doctors Caucus. Every time the GOP claims to have purged rape mythology, rape theology and rape extremism, another congressman opens his mouth. What worries me isn’t how many Republicans have repeated this stuff in public, but how many more believe it.
William Saletan (@saletan) covers science, technology and politics for Slate, where this column appeared first.