Dr. John Willke, a self-described “founding father” of the pro-life movement, is popping up in the news this week, credited with a dubious honor—helping to inspire Rep. Todd Akin’s controversial views on rape.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Dr. Willke said he believes Akin simply made “a slip of the tongue.”
Akin, a conservative Republican congressman from Missouri, has been trying desperately to un-ring the bell he rang on Sunday when he declared in a TV interview that what he called “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy. “The female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he said in the interview.
His comments drew a furious backlash. There were calls from within his own party, as well as from Democrats, for him to quit the current Senate race in Missouri, where he is running against Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill. President Obama called Akin’s remarks “offensive.” Mitt Romney called them “insulting.”
Amid the uproar, The Washington Post cited longtime pro-lifer Dr. Willke as being historically influential in the conservative school of thought on pregnancy and rape, digging up an essay he wrote more than a decade ago and sparking commentary across the blogosphere.
Dr. Willke, the president of a pro-life group, the Life Issues Institute, and also a physician, has been active in the movement for decades. In the 1970s, he wrote a book called Handbook on Abortion, which he updated and republished in seven editions over the years. In 1984, he helped found the International Right to Life Federation, a group that connects global pro-life groups. And in 1999, he wrote an essay saying that pregnancy from rape is rare. That’s the piece getting cited in the media now.
In that essay, Willke argued that factors such as physical trauma, stress, infertility, and birth control make it highly unlikely for women to get pregnant from rape. “There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape,” he said. “This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation, and even nurturing of a pregnancy.”
He offered up a complex mathematical calculation in the essay on how he arrived at his theory that pregnancy from rape is extremely rare. He also drew a distinction between “forcible rape,” statutory rape, and date rape. He said date rape counted as “forcible rape,” but that statutory rape was in a different category, as it could be consensual.
He continues to hold these views today. “The whole business of fertilization with a woman’s body is a delicate mechanism,” he told The Daily Beast. “A lot of things contribute to it.”
Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of the advocacy group National Advocates for Pregnant Women, dismisses Dr. Willke’s claims as “junk science” in the “abortion re-criminalization movement.” She said such remarks from both Dr. Willke and Akin “reflect what’s really going on—such profound disrespect for women and pregnant women. These comments get enormous coverage in the media and get treated as if they’re serious.” She added, “Women’s bodies are set up to reproduce. It doesn’t really matter what their head wants.”
Dr. Willke said he thinks it would be “absolute absurdity” for Akin to quit the race over the rape flap. “We’re in a political campaign season, and if you’re a Democrat, you’re gonna take advantage of this,” he said. He added that Akin “made one big mistake—a factual error. That’s what blew this up. He said if it’s a ‘legitimate’ rape. That’s a contradiction. There’s actual rape and there’s attempted rape. Nothing’s legitimate about it.” He believes Akin meant to say “forcible rape.”
Akin does, in fact, say that he misspoke, and that he meant to say “forcible rape,” not “legitimate rape.” In an apology, he said, “Rape is never legitimate … I used the wrong words in the wrong way. That sparked a new round of fire, with observers questioning the difference between rape and “forcible rape.” (The Missouri reporter who interviewed Akin has his own regrets, telling Talking Points Memo it was a “brain fart” that he let Akin’s comments slide.)
Experts say it’s hard to know how many pregnancies actually result from rape, as women don’t always report attacks. Different organizations offer different calculations. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or RAINN, crunched the numbers this way: in 2004, 64,080 women reported being raped. The incidence of pregnancy for one-time unprotected sexual intercourse is 5 percent, the group says. By applying that rate to 64,080 women, the group estimates that there were 3,204 pregnancies from rape that year.
RAINN notes that there are factors not taken into consideration in its calculation that could increase or decrease the number of pregnancies. For instance, the group notes, rape can be oral or anal, which would lower the number of pregnancies. Also, some rapes include multiple incidents of intercourse, which would increase the chances of pregnancy.
Dr. Willke, who also served as president of the National Right to Life Committee for 10 years, said he expects to see abortion outlawed in his lifetime. “I’m getting pretty old. I’m in my late 80s, but I think I will live to see abortion end,” he said. “We know far more today about the process of pregnancy today than we did 20 or 30 years ago.” He cites the moment sperm meets egg as the moment that human traits such as hair color and eye color are determined. “We didn’t know that years ago,” he said.
States enacted a record 135 abortion restrictions last year, such as requiring women to view ultrasounds before abortion and banning abortion at the 20th week after conception, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that focuses on reproductive rights.
Paltrow, the activist from National Advocates for Pregnant Women, charges that the pro-life movement is “at odds with itself.” She said, “On the one hand, they claim that rape doesn’t cause pregnancy. At the same time, they say pregnancy from rape shouldn’t justify abortion. Which one is it?”