Todd Akin Is Wrong On The “Rape Victims Rarely Get Pregnant” Argument

The centerpiece of Todd Akin’s controversial comments about rape and abortion is the assertion by him that women who are raped don’t get pregnant as frequently as women who have consensual sex. Not surprisingly, he’s entirely wrong about that:

Research published in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests over 30,000 pregnancies result from rape annually. “Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency,” the trio of researchers from the University of South Carolina concluded. “It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies.”

A separate 2001 study - which used a sample of 405 rape victims between ages 12 and 45 – found that 6.4 percent became pregnant.

Sarah Kliff points to that last study, which actually posits the rather provocative theory that victims of rape are statistically more likely to get pregnant than a woman who engages in consensual sex:

The study, “Are per-incident rape-pregnancy rates higher than per-incident consensual pregnancy rates?” was published in the journal Human Nature by Jonathan A. Gottschall and Tiffani A. Gottschall, two professors at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. They used data from the federally administered National Violence Against Women survey. There, they found a sample of 405 women between the ages of 12 and 45 who had experienced one incidence of rape that included intercourse.

Of those 405 women included in the sample, 6.4 percent — or 26 women — reported a pregnancy that year. A separate large-scale study showed that, for the general population of women that age, the per-incidence pregnancy rate for a single act of intercourse is 3.1 percent.

As to why rape victims would have a higher rate of pregnancy, the Gottschalls put forward a few theories. They look at previous research, which suggests that men are more attracted to women who are fertile and ovulating. In consensual sex, women can decline sex at a time where there might be a high likelihood of pregnancy. That’s not the case in rape.

“Rapists do not wait to be chosen, rapists choose,” they write. “As such, within the limits of opportunity, rapists would be able to target women bearing cues [of fertility].”

At the very least, though, these studies and others make it fairly clear that Akin’s assertion is wrong. At a minimum, women who are raped are just as likely to get pregnant as women who engage in consensual sex. If the second study is true, it may even be the case that rape victims are more likely to become pregnant. As it turns out though, Akin was repeating an assertion that has become quite popular with the “pro-life” crowd over the years:

His remarks tapped into a strain of thinking that dates back to at least the 1980s, with anti-abortion politicians from Pennsylvania to Arkansas making the case that the trauma of rape can often prevent pregnancy. The argument does not come up frequently, but when it does, it nearly always leads to political controversy.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephen Freind (R) was an ardent abortion opponent. He authored legislation that included one of the the nation’s first abortion waiting periods, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

He also looks to be the first legislator to make the argument that rape prevents pregnancy,  arguing in the late 1980s that the odds of a pregnancy resulting from rape were “one in millions and millions and millions.


The argument was dormant for about a decade, until the late 1990s. That’s when a North Carolina legislator, whom Garance Franke-Ruta points to, extended the argument to question whether there should actually be a rape exception from abortion restrictions, given that ”The facts show that people who are raped – truly raped – the juices don’t flow.”

Arkansas politician Fay Boozman followed up during during his 1998 Senate campaign by arguing that “fear-induced hormonal changes could block a rape victim’s ability to conceive.” Those remarks lead to a backlash when then-Gov. Mike Huckabee tappedBoozman to run the state’s health department.

The argument was most recently – and perhaps most fully – articulated by National Right to Life president John Wilke in a 1999 essay titled “Rape Pregnancies Are Rare.” Wilke made a pretty similar case to Akin: That the “physical trauma” of rape has a way of preventing pregnancy.

“To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones,” Wilke wrote. “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.”

The scientific evidence for this proposition is, unsurprisingly, shaky. Freind later backed off his theory about secretions, switching to an argument that rape would instead “delay, disrupt or prohibit ovulation by preventing the release of hormone-triggering factors.”

In other words, Akin didn’t mis-speak, as he claimed in his comments last night. In claiming that victims of rape aren’t likely to get pregnant, he was repeating a falsehood that has become gospel among conservative abortion activists. In doing so, he revealed just what kind of candidate, and Senator, he intends to be. It’s up to Missouri Republicans, and Missouri voters, to decide if that’s what they want.


FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Congress, Gender Issues, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    Its even worse than that. The House Republicans gave him a seat on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. When you go to the website, one headline is “House Questions President’s Priorities on Science.” How the f%^k can someone like Akin be involved in setting US policy on science?

  2. legion says:

    When you denigrate teaching, underfund education, and publicly place more emphasis on religious dogma being more important than actually learning anything about a given subject, people like Todd Akin are _exactly_ what you should expect to produce.

    As you correctly point out, Doug, Akin did not misspeak – he said exactly what he believes, what he meant to say, and what he felt would resonate best with his constituents.

  3. Rob in CT says:

    Wingnut fails biology? YOU DON’T SAY!

    The House Republicans gave him a seat on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

    *incoherent sputtering*

  4. grumpy realist says:

    And of course the corallary is” well, if you got pregnant, you didn’t really get raped.” See how that works?

    May they all get incurable lingering diseases.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    And when you point out that the GOP is gazing fondly on the 50s… the 1850s (note: may be unfair to mid-19th century)… people don’t believe you.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    “…It’s up to Missouri Republicans, and Missouri voters, to decide if that’s what they want…”

    Of course it’s what they want…Michael Reynolds is right…Akin will probably still win. Republicans do not want facts…they don’t want THE TRUTH…they want THEIR TRUTH. Republicans believe f’ed up stuff…and the f’ed up stuff is tailored to their fundamentalist world view. The Earth is not 4.5 billion years old…God made the world just 6000 years ago…and man walked amongst the dinosaurs. Evolution is a lie. Climate change is a hoax. Reagan didn’t raise taxes. Death Panels. The list is so long it boggles one’s mind. No evidence is need. Any any contrary evidence can be explained away. They trucked the WMD out of Iraq before the invasion and occupation. Obama had these birth notices planted in the Hawaiian newspaper.
    Akin will probably win…Romney and Ryan will probably win.
    Because Republicans are idiots…and they vote.

  7. stonetools says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Prior to Akin’s interview, had you said that Republicans were not only electing people with anti-science beliefs, but putting them in charge of overseeing the nation’s policy on science and technology, Very Serious People would dismiss your statement as partisan hyperbole.

  8. Murray says:

    I am a little insulted that you feel the need to explain to us that Akin is talking nonsense.

  9. swbarnes2 says:


    I am a little insulted that you feel the need to explain to us that Akin is talking nonsense.

    I bet Doug would say anything to distract from the point that his Republican vice-presidential candidate certainly agrees with this stuff, as evidenced by the anti-abortion bill they co-sponsored, and whatever Romney does or does not believe, no way would he go out on a limb and veto this kind of thing if it was handed to him., and Republicans will certainly do whatever they can do make that kind of bill happen.

    This is what Republicans are. This is what they have to be if they are going to secure the votes of the vile 27%. But apparently Doug will vote for this no problem, if he can bury himself in biological details and the mantra that only this one Republican is horrid enough to legislate based on this.

  10. Rob in CT says:


    Doug drives me nuts with false equivalence arguments, but as far as I know, Doug is a likely Gary Johnson voter.

  11. mantis says:


    But as Doug will tell you, he doesn’t necessarily vote for Republicans. However; he will never vote for Democrats because Democrats believe government can solve some problems, which is evil.

  12. Michael says:

    If Akin had claimed that black people shouldn’t vote because they’re intellectually inferior to whites, you wouldn’t spend a lot of time looking for studies that compare racial intelligence would you?

    Here’s what Akin said without saying: A) He believes that there is some form of non-consensual sex that isn’t “rape”. B) He believes that women who become pregnant as a result of rape actually consented to it.

    Isn’t that far more news worthy than a Republican being ignorant about science?

  13. anjin-san says:

    In doing so, he revealed just what kind of candidate, and Senator, he intends to be.

    An insensitive prick who thinks of women more or less as chattel?

    Is that a bug in today’s GOP, or a feature?

  14. David says:

    On the way home today, I was listening to a local talk radio station that has a conservative and a liberal on the show as hosts. One caller insisted that rapes rarely result in pregnancy and when they gave him the CDC numbers on pregnancies that occur every year as the result of rape (32,000 or so), he said the number had to be wrong and it wasn’t true. Apparently facts have a liberal bias.

    Even the conservative on the show was telling the guy he was wrong and to stop saying stuff like that because it made conservatives look bad. Instead of back tracking, he doubled down and said the CDC obviously made up the numbers.

  15. stuhlmann says:

    I recall attending a university history lecture back in the 70s. The Renaissance was the topic of discussion, and the professor told us that back in 15th Century Italy the same rape theories were in existence. Basically if the woman got pregnant, then she must have been a willing participant in the sexual act. If she didn’t get pregnant, then it was almost impossible to prove that any sex, rape or not, took place. Bottom line was that it was very difficult to convict a man of rape. It is amazing that this centuries old lie is still around, eating brains like any other zombie.