In Which Bryan Fischer Doubles Down on Todd Akin’s Pseudo-Science Stupidity

Filed in Politics, Science, Social IssuesTags: Conservatism, Elections, Pseudo-Science, Rape

I used to enjoy a good Fisking, usually of an article by a liberal columnist from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But today, the honor goes to Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association.

In the wake of Todd Akin's profoundly stupid comments asserting pseudo-science in defense of a policy position, Mr Fischer has chosen to double-down on Akin's stupidity by attempting to defend the scientific credibility of Akin's statements.  First, for background, Akin's quote:

From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that down.

Now, both this comment, and the response it has elicited, is fertile ground for discussion (not the least of which is the left's absurd attempt to claim that Akin somehow expressed "pro-rape" views due to the term "legitimate rape"); but the bottom line is that Akin's assertion is prima facie absurdity. Debate whether or not such comments should be grounds for pressuring Akin to withdraw from the Senate race, but don't be foolish enough to try to defend the validity of his assertion.

Alas, that is precisely what Bryan Fischer has done. And because of such manifest foolishness, I must respond. Let's roll tape on Fischer's on-air remarks in defense of Akin. Fischer accompanies those remarks with a blog post, from which I will quote liberally (all emphasis added by me):

Akin’s words, for which he apologized even though he had no need to, were right. He was entirely correct to say that pregnancies in cases of forcible rape are rare. Even if the exaggerated figures of the pro-abortion medical community are accurate, pregnancies due to rape amount to just 0.005% of all pregnancies. That’s rare in anybody’s book.

In defending the assertion that a woman's body can somehow reject or stop conception from rape, the relevant question is not whether total pregnancies resulting from rape are rare with respect all total pregnancies, but rather whether rape results in conception less frequently than conception from consensual, unprotected sex. The given statistic is silent on this comparison.

Fischer later says:

Unfortunately for the nattering nabobs of negativism who think Akin is some kind of medical Neanderthal, the London Daily Mail has a headline story TODAY which has this as the very first paragraph: “Stress can make women infertile, research has revealed. Scientists found that those with high levels of a stress hormone stop ovulating and are therefore unable to conceive.”

Who look like the dumb ones now?

Who looks like the dumb ones, indeed? Implying that the linked study proves his point requires one to ignore the cardinal rule of data analysis: correlation does not prove causation. Did Fischer consider any of the following questions:

  • Does the study involve acute stress, chronic stress, or both?
  • Does the study address the effects of acute stress on ovulation?
  • Assuming that acute stress can adversely impact ovulation, how often does rape occur within the extremely small window  of time required for the rape-induced stress to have that impact?
  • What impact does rape have on the body's production and sustained levels of cortisol?
  • Can rape interrupt or stop altogether the victim's menstrual cycle?

In fact, the referenced study can't answer any of those questions. It was merely an epidemiological study intended to suggest a potential correlation between stress levels and ovulation/menstruation. Sound science doesn't take a small, epidemiological study that can do nothing but suggest a correlation that may warrant further study, and turn it into an assertion of causation. Unfortunately, Fischer is not similarly disciplined:

Here’s the American Society for Reproductive Medicine: “In an occasional woman, too much stress can change her hormone levels and therefore cause the time when she releases an egg to become delayed or not take place at all.” Sounds like maybe her body can shut down the process after all.  

Such an assertion is an unwarranted jump to conclusion, and is as foolish as it is absurd. Suggesting a link between stress levels and ovulation in no way whatsoever proves an assertion that a rape victim has an innate physiological response that inhibits ovulation, and therefore conception.

Unperturbed by scientific and logical discipline, Fischer finds yet another epidemiological study to attempt to defend his position:

How about the New York Times, the Bible of wingers on the left? Here’s the headline of a May 11, 2011 feature article: “Lowering Stress Improves Fertility Treatment.” The article refers to findings published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, and quotes Dr. Alice D. Domar, a psychologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston who serves as director of mind-body services at Boston IVF, a large fertility center.

Said Dr. Domar, “If you’re really stressed out and depressed, the body seems to sense that’s not a good time to get pregnant.” Hmm. Sound suspiciously like the body shutting down, no?

Multiple epidemiological studies suggesting the same correlation still do not prove causation; rather, they merely provide a stronger argument for further studies. So I'll refrain from quoting the third such example Fischer uses.

Instead, I'll turn to relevant analysis of the assertion, by attempting to make a meaningful statistical comparison: the percentage of rapes that result in pregnancy, versus the percentage of consensual, unprotected sex that results in pregnancy. To that end, I'll reference three studies linked by PopSci.

Using this study as the baseline, 3.1% of unprotected, consensual sex results in pregnancy. How does that compare to pregnancy rates from rape? This study indicates that 5% of rapes result in pregnancy, and this study indicates that anywhere from 6.4% - 8% of rapes (factoring in birth control usage) result in pregnancy. Thus, according to these studies, rapes result in pregnancy at a rate around 2-3 more frequently than consensual, unprotected sex.

I don't know if those studies controlled for forcible versus statutory rape. But even such distinction likely won't change the numbers significantly enough to lend credence to the "magic uterus" pseudo-science. While hard numbers are difficult to acquire immediately, I did find this reference to a study from 1949 that indicates that statutory rape constitutes 30 percent of all sex crimes, and this site that asserts that 3/4 of all juvenile rape is forcible. Taken together, the two studies would indicate that non-forcible, statutory rape accounts for anywhere from 7.5% to 30% of all rapes. So even assuming the worst-case scenario, the statistics still indicate that rapes result in pregnancy with a frequency equal to or higher than consensual, unprotected sex.

I welcome more precise statistics, but based on what I've found, I don't see any reason to believe that differentiating between forcible rape and other forms of sexual assault (statutory rape, incest, etc.) would alter the conclusion that there is no evidence to support the assertion that rapes result in pregnancy less frequently than consensual, unprotected sex.

Thus, both Todd Akin and Bryan Fischer are foolishly and dangerously peddling pseudo-science. In so doing, the least of our worries is that Todd Akin will lose a Senate race. The bigger travesty is that, by changing the narrative to a defense of pseudo-science, those who peddle that pseudo-science forfeit the ability to hold a legitimate policy discussion regarding rape and abortion. Those who are pro-life, who believe that life begins at conception and that an innocent, unborn child should not be murdered simply because his father is a rapist, lose the opportunity to have that debate.

Thus, Todd Akin, Bryan Fischer, and anyone else who chooses to peddle such pseudo-science (or defend those who do) actively harm the objectives of the pro-life movement.