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Experts on reproduction challenge Akin's views on pregnancy following a rape

This rticle first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2012 - Science and research don’t seem to be on the side of Rep. Todd Akin when he argues that rapes rarely result in pregnancies. Akin, the GOP candidate in the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in November, touched off a public uproar Sunday on KTVI-TV when he put forth that position and an even more controversial one -- that a female’s body has a way of preventing pregnancy in the event of a rape.

Akin appears to embrace the views of groups such as Physicians for Life.  The organization argues on its website that “forced" or "assault" rape is rare and results in “no more than one or two pregnancies from every 1,000” incidents. In his appearance on Fox affiliate KTVI-TV in St. Louis, Akin wasn’t that specific, but he said enough to cause jaws to drop.

Rape appears to be more common than most people realize. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported last year that approximately 1 in 5 black and white women and 1 in 7 Hispanic women in the United States had experienced rape at some point in their lives. 

Politicians across party lines were the first to disagree with Akin. The criticism is also coming from experts on reproductive issues.

“If Todd Akin had had comprehensive, medically accurate sexual health education, he would know better,” says Allison M. Hile, executive director of Teen Pregnancy & Prevention Partnership.  

Also taking issue with the science behind Akin’s remarks were the local Planned Parenthood organization and Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

“It is unassailable, medically factual, that women can and do get pregnant as a result of rape. It’s not only medically factual but a real life tragedy,” Coble says.

Hile points to one often quoted study, in the journal Human Nature, which concludes that the incidence of pregnancies growing out of rapes was twice as high as other pregnancies. 

The authors of that study found that “even before adjusting for birth control usage, per-incident rape-pregnancy rates (6.42 percent) are notably higher than per-incident consensual pregnancy rates (3.1 percent).”

An earlier study, done in 1996, put the national rape-related pregnancy rate at about 5 percent among females of reproductive age.

But a report, published in 2010, leans toward lower numbers, seeming to say that Akin might have been right in at least part of his argument. Released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2010 study suggested that pregnancy occurred in 1.7 percent of women who reported being raped by intimate partners.  

The different percentages show the nuances in defining rape, says Kristen Houser, vice president of communications and development at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. In some instances, she says, women who are sexually assaulted by intimate partners either might not report the incident or might not report it as a rape. In addition, she says the numbers probably are skewed these days by newer forms of birth control.

Houser speculates that the reports of pregnancies from rape might have changed over the years because new birth control methods offer women more alternatives following unwanted sex. An example, she says, is the fact that “many hospitals are prescribing morning after pills,” which prevent pregnancies growing out of sexual encounters, including rapes.

Dr. George Macones, chair of OBGYN at Washington University School of Medicine, says Akin’s comment about the female body being able to prevent a pregnancy resulting from a rape “represents a complete lack of understanding” of how the body works.

He says the best information available is that rapes result in roughly 30,000 pregnancies a year. The real focus, he says, should be on helping “women feel they can report rapes and have options available to them about what to do.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.