In the wake of yet another politician (Trent Franks, R-AZ) erroneously declaring that pregnancy is rarely the result of a rape, Slate published an article claiming that the belief that women are unlikely to become pregnant from a sexual assault came from Nazi experimentation. Well, yes and then again no.
The article is correct in that there WAS indeed a Nazi experiment and it WAS cited to back up the idea that there is very slim chance of a victim’s pregnancy:
“an obstetrician named Fred Mecklenburg, who cited a Nazi experiment in which women were told they were on their way to die in the gas chambers—and then were allowed to live, so that doctors could check whether they would still ovulate. Since few did, Mecklenburg claimed that women exposed to the emotional trauma of rape wouldn’t be able to become pregnant, either. (He also argued that rapists are infertile because they masturbate a lot.)”
However, the article is wrong in that the belief was somehow exclusive to, or started with, Nazis. The idea that rape cannot cause conception is well over 2000 years old. First Hippocrates, and then Galen about five centuries later, declared that both male and female “seeds” were needed to make a baby. In order for the two kinds of seed to combine and take root in the womb, the woman HAD to have enjoyed intercourse. Thus, a woman who was “really” raped (and therefore did not enjoy “true” sexual assault) could not conceive.
Modern physicians, especially those over at The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, insist that there is “absolutely no veracity to the claim” that the trauma of rape reduces the risk of pregnancy. Nevertheless, there are still people who are convinced that in the case of “a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down” so that pregnancy will not occur. For those people neither reality nor medical evidence can change their opinion on this matter.
It’s not like they are deliberately researching and adhering to ancient Greek theories. It’s not like anyone has learned it in medical school. It’s not like there aren’t multiple studies proving it false. Why, then, is the idea that rape doesn’t cause pregnancy so entrenched?
I think it is because the belief is compatible with two other culturally constructed myths that reinforce and support patriarchal ideologies, and hence seems “true” to those who most firmly believe those myths.
First, it bolsters fallacies about rape, such as “she was asking for it” or “she secretly wanted it”. Within the context of rape culture, when a pregnancy occurs from rape it is ‘proof’ that the woman wanted the sex and is now blaming the man because she feels guilty and/or slutty, and is therefore evidence that women “rape so easy” by changing their minds the morning after. One need only witness the “slut-shaming” of rape victims to see how voluntary intercourse and sexual assault are conflated; as if women are the ones who did something wrong to earn their rape or that their attacker was just helping himself to what she offered him by default because she was unable to say “no”.
Currently a young teenager in Indiana is being viciously harassed because she became pregnant from rape. She is being called a “whore” even though her assailant has been convicted and “faces sentencing for three counts of child molestation”. Regardless of the fact her rapist is a serial predator who targets young girls, her pregnancy is being seen as a testament of her “promiscuous” behavior.
Secondly, pregnancy occurring as the result of rape has become a polarizing point in the abortion debates. Those who are on extreme end of the anti-choice movement are dismayed that most Americans, even those who consider themselves against legal abortion, want exceptions for abortions made under certain conditions, usually in the case of rape and incest. Extremists view any attempt to allow a pregnancy termination to be a way for women to get an abortion by falsely claiming rape. In 2011 failed presidential contender and anti-choice purist Rick Santorum claimed that even health exemptions to save the life of the mother should be excluded because they were “phony” excuses “concocted to skirt the law”.
Considering that the majority of Americans are sympathetic to plight of women impregnated through rape or incest, and view the lives of women who are endangered by a pregnancy to be worth preserving, rhetoric suggesting an that women should be denied those exceptions for idealistic reasons has not been embraced by the public. The only way that the lack of exemptions could be made palatable for the American people was if it was seen to be unnecessary. If all pregnancies from rape are so rare, then abortions for rape victims can be construed as attempts by untruthful women to obtain unjustifiable terminations.
Understandings about pregnancy, rape, and personal autonomy have undergone constant evolution, both across and within cultures. Even the abortion debate itself has not been historically static. Prior to the 19th century abortion was not considered amoral because the fetus was not believed to have a soul until several months after conception. An abortion was only illegal if it occurred after the “quickening” of the pregnancy at around 20 or so weeks gestation, when the soul was believed to have entered the fetus and transformed it into a fellow human being capable of being murdered.
No opinion, whether based on medical data or personal convictions, is formed outside of the larger cultural framework. If one looks, one can usually find the social and political forces motivating belief systems. The excitement of discovering complex underlying subtexts is the reason I love anthropology so much.