What research shows about rape and pregnancy

I’m not going to pile on with the rest of the critics calling out Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin for his comments on Sunday that it’s very rare for a woman to get pregnant through “a legitimate rape’’ and that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.’

(Akin has since apologized saying that he “misspoke’’ in the interview.)

But, however insensitively raised, the scientific question of whether a pregnancy is less likely to occur during times of forced intercourse is a legitimate one that has been addressed by researchers.

Washington Post health blogger Sarah Kliff referred to a study in a post this morning that suggests pregnancy rates may be higher in women who are raped, though the study conflicted with others that suggested pregnancy rates may be lower in cases of assault.


What’s clear is that contraception use — or rather, the lack of it — plays a big role in determing the rate of unintended pregnancies. And women who are assaulted often don’t have access to birth control. Many are teens who are victims of incest. Some are women in abusive relationships with partners coercing them into pregnancy in an effort to retain control over them.

In a study published last year from San Francisco State University, researchers found a strong association between rape and unplanned pregnancies among Colombian teens. About 13 percent of teenage girls who had been pregnant reported that they had been sexually assaulted in the past — about half by a romantic partner and about half by a stranger or family member. Girls in the study who were raped were 40 percent more likely than their peers to have become unintentionally pregnant and were 50 percent less likely to have access to contraception.

“The national rape-related pregnancy rate is calculated to be 5 percent per rape among females aged 12 to 45 years,’’ according to the website of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “This would be equivalent to approximately 32,000 pregnancies as a result of rape each year.’’ The medical organization issued a recommendation last August for all its ob-gyn members to “routinely screen all patients for a history of sexual assault,’’ especially those who complain about pelvic pain, menstrual irregularities and painful sex.


Full access to emergency contraception for rape victims could also help prevent unintended pregnancies. Last year, government health officials decided to nix the Food and Drug Administration’s plan to make the Plan B emergency contraceptive available over the counter without any age restriction. It’s still kept behind the pharmacy counter, and only those who are age 17 or older can buy it without a prescription.

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