The first reference I can find to a politician claiming that rape rarely causes pregnancy is from April 1975. During the debate on an abortion bill, U.S. Senator Dewey Bartlett of Oklahoma asserted, "A person who is raped very seldom becomes pregnant. Statistics show it's very rare."
When I read that, I wondered where the gentleman from Oklahoma picked that up. I think I have the answer. Raw Story points us to a story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a 1972 article by Dr. Frank Mecklenburg, who was then an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School:
While U.S. Rep. Todd Akin cited only "doctors" as his source of information about the rarity of pregnancy resulting from rape, it is two pages, from Mecklenburg's 1972 article, "The Indications for Induced Abortion: A Physician's Perspective," that have influenced two generations of anti-abortion activists hoping to build a medical case to ban all abortions without exception.Mecklenburg also went, er, a little further afield:
In Mecklenburg's original article, he wrote that pregnancy resulting from rape "is extremely rare," and cited as an example the city of Buffalo, N.Y., which had not seen "a pregnancy from confirmed rape in over 30 years." Other cities -- Chicago, Washington, St. Paul -- also had experienced lengthy spells without a rape-caused pregnancy, Mecklenburg wrote.
In supporting his claim about trauma and ovulation, Mecklenburg cited experiments conducted in Nazi death camps.Mecklenburg hasn't gotten a lot of backup for these theories from people in the mainstream. But they've spread like wildfire on the right.
The Nazis tested this hypothesis "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 the effect this had on their ovulatory patterns. An extremely high percentage of these women did not ovulate."
Finally, Mecklenburg said it was likely that the rapists — because of "frequent masturbation" -- were unlikely to be fertile themselves.
Part of the reason they've spread, apparently, is that Mecklenburg, through his wife, had strong ties to the Republican mainstream:
The dissemination of Mecklenburg's article may have had more to do with the influence of the doctor's wife, Marjory, an early opponent of abortion rights who was a chairwoman of the National Right to Life Committee, an adviser to Gerald Ford's 1976 presidential campaign and director of the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
So the guy who gave us this crackpot theory wasn't some fringe Bible-thumper -- he was linked, through his wife, an anti-abortion crusader, to the national GOP at very high levels.
Dr. Fred became a professional "expert" of sorts in the 1970s, offering anti-abortion testimony in multiple states. Here he is in 1975 telling a federal court in Pennsylvania that abortion can cause medical complications in subsequent pregnancies; here he is the same year in Boston, testifying against a black doctor named Kenneth Edelin, who was tried for manslaughter -- and convicted, although the conviction was later overturned -- after performing a legal abortion.
But in 1988, when Pennsylvania state representative Stephen Freind claimed that abortion rarely causes rape, he cited Dr. Fred -- but the doctor distanced himself from Freind, saying that the "comments were provided to Mr. Freind in a limited context" and he was "not aware of Mr. Freind's intended use of the information." By that time, he seems to have tired of being a lightning rod, because his name doesn't really show up in abortion stories after that.
Strangest thing about all this? The doctor actually opened the first family planning clinic at the University of Minnesota, in 1969.
He's still alive and practicing -- he chairs the OB/GYN department at Virginia Commonwealth University and oversees the medical staff of the Inova Fairfax Women's Center. I'm not making that up.