Republicans’ Claim That Rape Doesn’t Cause Pregnancy Comes From Nazi Experiments

What Women Really Think
June 12 2013 2:52 PM

The Myth That Rape Rarely Causes Pregnancy Comes From Nazi Experiments

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Rep. Trent Franks testifies during a May 2011 hearing on Capitol Hill

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

I don’t understand why Republicans continue to offer up headlines like “GOP congressman: Rate of pregnancies from rape is ‘very low.’ ” It is terrible politics for them to focus the public’s attention on their justification for the fact that they don’t support an exception to abortion bans for rape victims. The view doesn’t have anything like majority support, and they come off as heartless, ignorant scolds. If I were an anti-abortion activist, I’d want to muzzle these people. But they are irrepressible. At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, argued against an exception for rape and incest victims from a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. He said, “Before, when my friends on the left side of the aisle here tried to make rape and incest the subject—because, you know, the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.” He is of course following in the footsteps of former Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, who said that women can stave off pregnancy after a “legitimate rape.” (He apologized but that didn’t save him from losing his next election.)

These claims are false, of course, or as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists puts it, “medically inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous.” That is not all that’s wrong with the claims. They originate with Nazi experiments on women in concentration camps. Here’s what I wrote about this last November

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“In the aftermath of Akin’s statement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on a 1972 essay by 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.) The essay was published in a book financed by A.U.L.”

A.U.L. is Americans United for Life, a pro-life advocacy group with increasing clout because of its success in drafting model state laws to restrict abortion. The line from the Nazis to Mecklenburg to Akin and Franks runs through Jack Wilke, a doctor who is the former head of the National Right to Life Committee. He said, "What is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that's physical trauma." And he stuck with this when the Los Angeles Times called to ask him about Akin last year. When I asked A.U.L. head Charmaine Yoest about the claim that rape rarely results in pregnancy, she was smarter and called it “a distraction.” Abortion opponents sure do keep bringing it up, though.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.