Monday, August 20, 2012

Bullshit Anti-Abortion Rhetoric

It used to be the case that even opponents of abortion still allowed for exceptions when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or posed a threat to the life of the mother. No more. As the Republican party has grown more extreme, there are now efforts underway to outlaw all abortion no matter what. Unfortunately, this position strikes many as heartless and vindictive (should we really force a 12-year old girl forcibly raped by her father to carry that child to term?). As a response, some have taken to inventing rationales for their extreme anti-abortion positions. Enter Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican nominee for the Senate in Missouri:

So, according to Rep. Akin (and he is not alone), pregnancies resulting from rape are rare because the female body has some kind of natural mechanism that prevents her from becoming pregnant as a result of rape.

Now this seems like a moronic view, but as good critical thinkers we should ask if there is any evidence for this claim. Fortunately, Dr. Jen Gunter has done the work to track down what appears to be the likely source of Akin's claim. She suggests that Akin got his view from an anti-abortion group, Physicians for Life who have posted a position paper written by Dr. J.C. Willke titled, "Assault Rape Pregnancies are Rare." In this Dr. Willke suggests that there are between 4 and 10 rape pregnancies per state per year (Some lousy statistical work when we compare the population of a state like Rhode Island to that of California), which should amount to 200-500 rape pregnancies per year. This is a good example of a Red Herring as the number of pregnancies caused by rape seems fairly irrelevant to the question of whether or not we should allow women who have been raped to get abortions. Even if it were just one woman a year, that wouldn't change the question of whether or not such abortions were legitimate. Putting this aside, Dr. Willke go on to argue that:
Finally, factor in what is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that's psychic trauma. Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, and implantation.
This seems to be the source of Akin's assertions, but where does this information comes from? As Dr. Gunter notes:
The Physicians for Life site quotes 3 sources, only one is original research. The one article was authored by Goth and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1977 (yes, 1977) and in NO WAY SUPPORTS THE NOTION THAT RAPES ARE RARE OR THAT THE STRESS RESPONSE LOWERS THE PREGNANCY RATE. It is an article about sexual dysfunction among rapists. Put another way, the Physicians for Life have not provided a single published article to support their claims.
Akin also shows that Physicians for Life have drastically understated the number of pregnancies resulting from rape:
There are obvious difficulties in studying rape outcomes as “only 16 to 38% of rape victims report the rape to law enforcement, and only 17 to 43% present for medical evaluation after rape; one-third of victims of rape never report the assault to their primary care doctor.” (NEJM  2011). However, a scientific estimate (i.e. from research) is between 25,000 and 32,000 pregnancies from rape a year in the United States (American Journal Obstetrics and Gynecology 1996 and American Journal of Preventative Medicine 2000). [Here is a link to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology article]
So, what he have here is is a good example of Bullshit. Physicians for Life have invented and Akin has repeated a claim with no basis in fact that supports their extremist position. They have adopted a position and are willing to make-up evidence to support that position regardless of the basis of that evidence in reality. These aren't lies, because Akin and Physicians for Life don't care whether or not these claims are true. All they care about is finding a justification for their ideologically motivated position. And this is the textbook definition of bullshit: making assertions with no regard for the truth or falsity of those assertions. (As a side note, it is extremely disturbing that Akin is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology)

h/t to Pharyngula

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