Personal Essay
Yes, Virginia, You Can Get Pregnant From Being Raped

Yes, Virginia, You Can Get Pregnant From Being Raped

In a T.V. interview on Sunday, August 19, Representative Todd Akin stated, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare…. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  I don’t know whether we should be livid about his qualifying rape into “legitimate” and “illigetimate” (whatever those categories are) or that he is perpetuating a myth- a horrible ignorant fabrication- about pregnancy and rape. Sexual assault survivors have endured enough after such a traumatic event.  Already, rape victims face a society that perpetuates blaming the survivor, as I mentioned in my prior post on Victim Blaming.  Do we really need to add even more problems onto their plate?

Maybe this is Akin’s medical source…?

Despite what Rep. Akin claims, yes, you can get pregnant from a rape.  In 1996, the American Journal of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated pregnancy from rape occurs with “significant frequency” and cited at least 32,101 pregnancies resulted from rape the previous year.  So, Rep. Akin knows more than the medical community apparently.

Akin’s point was to argue against abortion in any event, even in the case of rape, but does he know he is making a claim that has roots from centuries past (not to mention it has been disproven)?  In colonial America, a woman’s orgasm was presumed to be needed for conception.  Samuel Farr’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1785) argued that “without excitation or lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.”  If a woman claimed rape but became pregnant, she lost almost all credibility since, physicians and lawyers claimed, she certainly had to consent or enjoy the sexual act.  Rape victims had a hard time proving the assault already.  The gender, class, and race bias worked against many women.  Successful rape convictions were infrequently obtained, especially if the defendant was a white man.  Women of color, of lower socioeconomic classes, and even of unmarried status tended to have little legal protection against sexual assault, as historian Mary Beth Norton and Kathleen Brown have shown.  Even if the survivor was a female child, say of tender age of ten years, the courts tried the crime as a lesser offense than a married woman.  Why?  Many reasons could be claimed, but one of the most obvious is that manhood (legally and socially) required exclusive sexual access to his wife.  Any violation was considered a serious offense.  But still, pregnancy could only take place if the woman “wanted it.”  By the mid-1800s, scientific discoveries and the gender norm of womanhood (which pretty much included the absence of sexual feeling) helped to uproot this myth of rape barring conception.

We applaud the FBI’s new definition of rape, but we still are not making much progress in terms of sexual assault.  Survivors face extensive background checks on their “character,” questions on whether they “asked for it” by what they wore or where they went, etc.  And now, we have people publicly resurrecting this antiquated and inaccurate view of rape and conception.  Saying it was just Akin would make me feel relieved that it is just one ignorant person believing that mess, but since the late 70s and early 80s, this myth that rape victims can not get pregnant (“if they are really raped”) has grown.  In 1988, Rep. Stephen Friend made the same claim by saying women secreted a hormone to destroy the sperm, to which one doctor retorted, “Boy, if I could find out what that [secretion] was, I’d use it as a contraceptive.”  Anti-choice groups, even within the medical community, also make those claims to champion anti-abortion (and even anti-birth control) legislation.   (Think about the Oklahoma doctor who refused to give emergency contraception to a rape victim back in May of this year.)  This myth is a powerful one.  It fuels victim blaming and has the potential to make rape viewed as even less of a crime than it is currently perceived.  Akin and other adherents to this falsehood should be taken to task.

Suggested Reading:

* Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

* Laqueur, Thomas W. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990.

* Lindemann, Barbara S. “”To Ravish and Carnally Know”: Rape in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts.” Signs. 10.1 (1984): 63-82.

* Norton, Mary B. Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1996.

* Ulrich, Laurel. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Ashley Baggett is a co-founder of Nursing Clio and is an assistant professor at North Dakota State University. She earned her PhD in history from Louisiana State University in 2014, and specializes in women’s history, gender studies, medical history, 19th-century United States, and southern history. She graduated with a BS in Secondary Education, Social Studies in 2003 and then taught middle and high school for five years before returning to grad school.

9 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, You Can Get Pregnant From Being Raped

    • Author gravatar

      It is important to point out that although the Romney/Ryan ticket distanced themselves from Akin’s statements, Paul Ryan in fact worked with Akin to change the law so that only “forcible rape” could be used as an exception for abortion under Medicaid. As Michelle Goldberg explained in the Daily Beast: “Victims of statutory rape—say, a 13-year-old girl impregnated by a 30-year-old man—would be on their own. So would victims of incest if they’re over 18. And while “forcible rape” isn’t defined in the criminal code, the addition of the adjective seems certain to exclude acts of rape that don’t involve overt violence—say, cases where a woman is drugged or has a limited mental capacity.” See the article here:

    • […] about pregnancy resulting from “legitimate” rape, however, are not new.  Prevalent 18th Century thought held that conception would only occur when the female was […]

    • Author gravatar

      What I find particularly infuriating about this, is that it doesn’t matter what the frequency of pregnancy from rape is, just one woman being legally forced to carry a child from rape to term is one woman too many.

    • Author gravatar

      Reblogged this on alphabetsouprainbow and commented:
      If only I could roll my eyes back further. Not only are women’s bodies fodder for harmful political debates, but these types of discussions only serve to further powerful myths and victim blame in cases of rape.

    • […] Yes, Virginia, You Can Get Pregnant From Being Raped. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

    • Author gravatar

      And there was the case of the prison guard taking a woman’s emergency contraception from her after she was raped (she reported the rape and was instantly put in prison for failing to turn up in court over something else – couldn’t they have waited a few days to jail her? Since when did nonviolent crimes require being put in custody before trial anyway?) The guard claimed she was allowed to do it under the exemption clause. The woman sued.

      If the conscience clause works like that, what’s the point of even having ER, rape crisis centres, or Planned Parenthood? Anyway in Mississippi there’s only one abortion clinic open now so most of its residents can’t get an abortion if their contraception fails – especially young or poor women who can’t travel out of state. If the comment above is right, then if MedicAid doesnt cover abortion then lots of women won’t be able to afford one, especially those on welfare or whose parents are abusive and won’t give them the money. In N Carolina it used to be that if you were under 18 you had to have parental consent to have an abortion, which is obv just an extreme form of child abuse. And some states make it that parents get notified if you’re under 18 and ask your doctor for contraception – ensuring teens and young adults won’t ask for it!

      It should be a criminal offence to knowingly steal contraception from a woman or, as a medical practicioner, refuse it (whether emergency or not, though emergency should make the crime much more serious). But then strip searching was recently legalised even though the guy was just – allegedly – speeding, and a woman was strip searched in public in front of her children for allegedly running a red light, and her tampon forcibly taken out. So, a lot of problems right now.

      Just divide America into two countries – conservative/religious/nuts and normal. Everyone can pick which side to live on. That way, everyone under the nuts laws will be consenting to living in a theocracy. But then I guess their kids might be harmed by said laws before they’re able to move to the normal side.

    • […] object of derision, but his statement mattered on a larger level. First of all, as Nursing Clio’s Ashley Baggett and Austin McCoy have already pointed out, comments like Akin’s serve to perpetuate a rape […]

Comments are closed.