Myth That Rape Rarely Causes Pregnancy Based on a Nazi Experiment That Never Happened

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July 26 2013 11:42 AM

Myth That Rape Rarely Causes Pregnancy Based on a Nazi Experiment That Never Happened

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Todd Akin peddled a lie based on a myth.

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

I’ve written before about how the myth that rape rarely causes pregnancy, trotted out most famously by former Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, originates with a claim about a Nazi experiment in a 1972 essay by the obstetrician Fred Mecklenburg. Mecklenburg was married to Marjory Mecklenburg, president of the National Right to Life Committee in the 1980s. In his essay, which appeared in a book financed by another anti-abortion group, Americans United for Life, Mecklenburg wrote that:

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

... the Nazis tested the hypothesis that stress inhibits ovulation by selecting women who were about to ovulate and sending them to the gas chambers, only to bring them back after their realistic mock killing, to see what effects this had on their ovulatory patterns. An extremely high percentage of these women did not ovulate.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on the essay after the furor over Akin’s comment that women can stave off pregnancy after a “legitimate rape.” (Akin apologized but lost his next election.) Another former head of the National Right to Life Committee, Jack Willke, had previously resurrected this canard, and stuck with it when the Los Angeles Times called to ask him about Akin last year.*

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I’ve wondered, though, whether this claimed Nazi experiment ever really happened—Mecklenburg’s footnotes are vague. And now the bioethicist Arthur Caplan and two doctors, Sabine Hildebrandt and William Seidelman, who have studied medical practices under the Nazis, have determined that it did not. They think Mecklenburg based his claim on an oral presentation that a Georgetown professor named Andre Hellegers gave at a 1967 conference on abortion. They explain:

The apparent myth of “rape and pregnancy” most likely resulted from confusion with the documented research of Professor Hermann Stieve of the University of Berlin who is known to have exploited female prisoners for research on the effect of stress on the female genital tract. To the best of our knowledge, Stieve’s research did not include a study of rape and its impact on pregnancy. Stieve’s internationally recognized research was published during and after the war and it is probable that Mecklenburg and Hellegers, who were both noted gynecologists, were somewhat aware of it.

It should be noted that for much of the postwar period documentation of what doctors in Nazi Germany actually did has been suppressed. It was only in 2012 that the Federal Chamber of Physicians of Germany officially acknowledged the pervasive role played by German doctors in the realization of the Nazi program of eugenics, euthanasia and horrific experimentation that contributed towards the worst scientifically organized program of human destruction in the history of humankind. A new generation of scholars in Germany is undertaking research into the role played by the German medical profession, including the universities and research institutes. Archives and data sources that were previously not accessible have become available to researchers. As of today, evidence of Nazi research on rape and pregnancy does not exist.

In other words, this is a myth wrapped in another myth. Not only is it “medically inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous” to say that women who are victims of rape rarely get pregnant, as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists puts it. There is also no evidence for it whatsoever. Not even from a warped Nazi experiment.

*Correction, July 29, 2013: This post originally misspelled the name of National Right to Life Committee former head Jack Willke.

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