Science, rape, and pregnancy

Kate Clancy is one of my favorite bloggers. An anthropology professor at the University of Illinois, she studies the evolution of female reproductive anatomy. Her blog covers science I don't see anywhere else—the human evolution, cultural anthropology, and behavioral science behind ladybusiness.

So Clancy's blog was one of the first places I looked yesterday after reading about Missouri Rep. Todd Akin thoughtful commentary on female biology. In a long, well-written, and (fair warning) rather graphic post, Clancy talks about what we know about rape—think of it this way, you know way more people who have been raped than who have a gluten intolerance—and the way that emotional trauma affects conception and pregnancy.

First off, there is absolutely no difference in the rate of conception between women who have been raped and those who had consensual sex. Clancy breaks this down nicely in her blog post, and even offers a surprising tidbit from the research literature that all people should consider—at any given day in a woman's cycle (even days when she is supposedly "infertile") there's about a 3% chance of unprotected sex leading to a pregnancy.

The impact of stress on miscarriage is a lot messier. I've mentioned here before that we know very, very little about miscarriage, relative to a lot of other medical issues. To paraphrase my family practice doc, when you start talking about conception and miscarriage you very quickly wander past the small amount of hard evidence and straight into voodoo. And also into the counter-intuitive nature of reality. For instance, from reading Jon Cohen's excellent book on miscarriage science, Coming to Term, I know that one of the very few miscarriage interventions that's ever performed better than placebo in multiple trials is something called "Tender Loving Care". The idea: For whatever reason, women who have had recurrent miscarriages have a greater chance of carrying the next pregnancy to term if they have regular access to mental health services, stress-relieving practices like meditation, and doctors who listen and respond to their fears. But that's not the same thing as saying that stress, or a scare, or a severe mental trauma will, inevitably, cause a miscarriage. Here's Kate Clancy:

Yes, psychosocial stress is associated with fetal loss in some samples. That is not the same thing as saying that stress causes fetal loss. Some women are more reactive to stress than others, and this seems to be based on genes and early childhood experiences. As I pointed out in my post, it certainly isn’t something women have conscious control over. And so it is irrational to link the stress of rape, while awful and severe, to fetal loss, when we understand the mechanism of the stress response and its relationship to pregnancy so poorly, and when we know next to nothing regarding how variation in stress reactivity is produced.

Basically, while stress (and the associated hormones) are correlated with a higher risk of miscarriage in some (but not all) studies, that seems to have more to do with an individual's biological makeup than it does with the source of the stress. And, frankly, we barely know enough to even say that.

Read the rest of Kate Clancy's post on the rape and pregnancy

Read Clancy's earlier (excellent) post on miscarriage

Read Jon Cohen's book, Coming to Term. (I keep recommending this, but, seriously, it's wonderful. And a hugely sane-making force in my life.)

Image: Uterus Embroidery Hoop Art, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hey__paul's photostream


  1. i was puzzled how everyone was talking about the ‘legitimate rape’ comment.  yes that is outrageously offensive, but the context of that comment was pure insanity… and no one seemed to bring that up.

    1. I’ve been trying to parse it, and I still don’t get it.  

      “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

      1. It implies a bunch of things: that all fetuses MUST come to full term.  That rape must somehow be judged post-hoc as legitimate or not, so that the rapist can be punished according to a sliding scale of justice.  Because, presumably, an “illegitimate rape” means the rapist either goes free or has a reduced punishment or the victim has to face punishment for the rape’s illegitimacy.  Also, that the woman has some kind of internal discernment of legitimate vs. illegitimate rape and can initiate a self-destruct sequence on the pregnancy.


      2. What confuses me about this quote, is that if the woman’s *body* has ways of shutting down the pregnancy, what’s wrong with the woman’s *mind* shutting down a pregnancy (i.e. abortion)?  
        He seems to be saying that he’s perfectly fine with abortion (in the form of miscarriage) in cases of rape.  But that if a woman actually needed to go in to have an abortion it wasn’t really rape.  

        I just wish someone would ask him to clarify…

        1. i guess in his view, miscarriage is not an abortion.

          Meh, approach it from the angle of souls and Gods great plan. From that view, any human action against bringing a fetus to full term is to interfere with Gods great plan (whatever that may be). And it also stops a soul from setting food on the path to heavenly salvation…

          There is a logic to it. But it begins and ends with souls, not flesh.

    2. He misspoke and said what Republicans are thinking when they say “forcible rape”. This specific wording is being added to State laws and seems to be a talking point when Republicans talk about rape, especially when it comes to abortion rights due to rape. It is really insidious. What this wording tries to do is make you question whether the victim is being honest and it does so by forcing you to think of the opposite idea of a forced rape–a non-forced, illegitimate, or “consensual rape”. So now in order to have the abortion, the victim must prove that they aren’t faking it.

      Note: I’m not talking about statutory rape where the victim can claim consent without a legal ability to do so. Republicans aren’t trying to divide between “forcible rape” and statutory rape. They are trying to divide between legitimate and illegitimate rapes (though I’m sure they’d claim they were talking about statutory rape if they were pressed, because otherwise they would look like assholes).

      1. Yes, in fact, the reason that they are using this weird language is they are trying to differentiate between “forced” rape and statutory rape. They want to say that abortion laws that have a rape exemption apply only to forced rape and not to statutory rape.

        “BLOCK: As we heard, Nick, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act last year – this is the bill that Paul Ryan and many other Republicans co-sponsored – originally called for an exemption only for something called forcible rape. Why was that language included in the original bill?
        BAUMANN: So, forcible rape is sort of a fudged term. It doesn’t really have a clear definition in federal law and it would have been chaos, state by state, for states to decide what that actually meant and what was included. But one thing that pretty much everyone agreed was not included in forcible rape was statutory rape.”

        1. It is only a rape-rape if it is witnessed by at least 4 adult males.
          Otherwise it is fornication for which the victim gets whipped, unless she is married, then its a stoning.

          Oh.  Different religion.  Same crazies.

  2. Plus the implication that the stress of a rape somehow carries forward in time to affect a pregnancy’s viability later on?  and that if it wasn’t a “legitimate” rape, then therefore there wasn’t enough of a stress to cause the miscarriage or non-conception?  As if the woman has conscious control over conception and miscarriage?  I honestly cannot comprehend what they are thinking here.  I can’t follow their logical flow.

    You know what else is weird?  I grew up going to church, and the party line on babies was that it’s God’s will.  God gave people babies.  God had the control of whether it happened or not.  So, suddenly, the woman now has control?  I’m saying that it’s not consistent even within the fundamentalist sphere of thought, regardless of science or objective reality.

    1. When I was a Christian, there was another Christian who said something to me about rape and pregnancy to the effect of “Well, God wanted that baby to be born, and I guess rape was the way to make that happen.”  What the hell?!  If that’s what your God is about, I’m out.

  3. As the unofficial representative for the State of Missouri, I’d like to make a couple of points. Todd Akin in no way represents the way I or any of my Missouri friends think. Before this whole issue came up, a TV ad against him actually pointed out just how scary his beliefs are, without any sensational claims, just QUOTES FROM THE MAN HIMSELF. Many of us were happy to see him get the Republican nomination, because we knew there is no way this batshit crazy dude will ever be elected. Mark my words, he will fuck up again before the election, and I don’t think he’ll drop out. The scary thing is a lot of rural people in my state do think the way he does, but it is changing slowly but surely. I think the categorization of States as “Red” or “Blue” is way too general; if you look at county maps, it is more of a rural/urban thing than a state thing.

    1. Many of us were happy to see him get the Republican nomination, because we knew there is no way this batshit crazy dude will ever be elected.

      That’s what his Democratic opponent Claire McCaskill was counting on when her campaign spent money ensuring he’d win the primary. While I understand the logic behind such political machinations I still find them deeply unsettling for two reasons:

      1. Purposely setting up this guy as the public face of the Republican party in Missouri lowers the discourse even further than it has sunk already.

      2. If the unthinkable happens and McCaskill’s bid fails then the Democrats will be directly responsible for putting this monster in office.

      1. A similar setup may well be going on with the presidential. Romney may well be a sacrifice so that they can keep a Democrat in office for another period while they stonewall anything and everything to destroy him and the party politically. Then they roll out someone more palatable, say that new CIA chief, up against whoever the Democrats decide to put forward.

        1. No, because they crave power outright.  They don’t crave plans and waiting and self-immolation.  They crave the power seat IMMEDIATELY, so that they can enact their tax cuts on the rich and destruction on the poor and helpless. There is no such thing as delayed self-greedification.

    2. Really though, the only reason he’s going to fail is because the big money has pulled out of his race (PACs and SuperPACs mostly) so he won’t be able to steamroll the airwaves and win anyway like so many other extreme Republicans.  Before those comments, that was one seat the Republicans were pretty sure they were going to pick up. 

  4. I’m surprised, and dismayed, that Kate Clancy, the media, or anyone else even needs to bother to rebut Akins’ statement. What he said is so patently untrue that it’s remarkable that his head didn’t implode immediately. He, and any Republicans, or even members of the so-called “Conservative Movement” who even suggest that conception rates differ whether or not the woman has been raped, “legitimately” or otherwise, should be mocked, ridiculed,  shamed, and in every way forced out of any discussion of women’s health issues.

    These people having any political power is like handing a loaded gun to a two-year old who just watched a John Woo movie.

    1. You seem to think he was alone in his beliefs.  The hope is that by airing this out in the sun and show that outside of their insular little circle that such beliefs are laughable, and that the people who hold them should re-evaluate their position. 

      Either that or they’ll just grumble something about ivy tower elites and hope the whole thing blows over quickly so they can get back to what they were doing.

  5. there is absolutely no difference in the rate of conception between women who have been raped and those who had consensual sex.

    I heard that some of the “safety of rape” arguments came from a study which found the rapists tended to have performance or fertility problems. The conclusion that rape is less likely to cause pregnancy was then extracted without acknowledging that it correlated with the quality of the rapist.

    1. Could you link the source? I keep hearing about this theory that rapists have fertility problems, and have yet to see anything that supports that. In a different venue, a young man actually told me that rapists must have some physiological damage that makes them rape, and causes infertility. I’d really love the source on this fishy claim. 

      1. I don’t know what studies the rape defenders have been using or where they use them, but a quick google turns up this study:
        Emotional aspects of infertility

        The concept that emotional stress might lead to oligospermia was further supported in a report describing testicular biopsies obtained from men awaiting sentencing after raping and impregnating women.

        It is conceivable that this could be used to claim that rapists have low sperm counts as opposed to a notion that the stress of awaiting a sentence can cause a low sperm count.

        The quick google also turns up this:
        Emergency Management of the Adult Female Rape Victim

        A high incidence of sexual dysfunction during rape has been reported, with roughly 50 percent of assailants experiencing impotence or ejaculatory dysfunction. Penile penetration and ejaculation in a body orifice occurred in only one-third of sexual assaults evaluated in one large study.

        which asserts that 2/3 of rapes can’t cause pregnancy.

        1. OK, those articles are from 1982 and 1991.  I’d suggest looking in criminology journals for more reliable info on how rapes actually go down.  One with details abstracted from police reports.  These old health articles are not getting at the crux of the matter: whether the intercourse during rape is essentially different than consensual intercourse.

  6. “at any given day in a woman’s cycle (even days when she is supposedly “infertile”) there’s about a 3% chance of unprotected sex leading to a pregnancy”
    This statement is a bit misleading. Yes, the time of ovulation may vary a lot, so averaged over the cycle it might be 3%… but… a woman can only become pregnant around 6 days in a cycle, ending with the ovulation. (Reference:, from the same dude that researched that 3.1%) So, if she is raped outside of that time frame she cannot become pregnant, but, if she is raped during the fertile period I would assume the rate of pregnancy would be much higher than the 3.1!

    1. This statement is a bit misleading.

      The article said “the rate of pregnancy on any given day is about 3.1%”- it makes a lot more sense if read as ‘any given day of the week’, rather than ‘any given day in a woman’s cycle’.

      during the fertile period I would assume the rate of pregnancy would be much higher than the 3.1!

      The graph in the article shows that it’s nearly 10%- and it’s close to zero on the most infertile days:

  7. If stress really lowered the chances of a successful birth, wouldn’t there be an evolutionary pressure on males against rape and for maximally reducing stress for their partners? The genes of those mating non-consensually would seldom be passed on?

    I mean, I know the comment is idiotic for many reasons. This just seems to be another one.

  8. Goin’ on down to the tent revival for some hootenanny (aka legitimate rape) Too bizzy for big city-folk-science-talk!

  9. He’s confusing human anatomy with that of a DUCK that does have a constant stream of “Ambush mating” and the female’s anatomy able to counter it mostly…

    With humans it’s been “Woman!  Why you scream!?  OG will give you MANY BABIES!!!” or later, well Romeo and Juliet Scene 3 act 5…the father threatening to disown Juliet if she doesn’t marry the one he’s arranged for her.

    1.  There’s a number of animals that can either prevent conception or voluntarily abort. Female spotted hyenas have such exotic genitals that a male can’t even attempt basic penetration without quite a lot of co-operation (doesn’t rule out anal rape but it sure prevents pregnancy).

      Humans can voluntarily terminate a pregnancy; we do it like we do all the other fancy things that animals do with specialized anatomical tricks – we do it with technology.

      Blarg. This whole thing is serious wtf.

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