The Nazi Anatomists

by Rachel Baker on November 13, 2013

Every wonder why it is people of a certain political wing feel the need to make boneheaded comments like “legitimate rape doesn’t cause pregnancy”? Well look no further…its because they heard something they like, and they spew it for decades without really checking to see where it came from.  This is a seriously long read…but its so incredibly worth it on a historical science level.

In August 2012, then–Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri said that women can prevent themselves from getting pregnant after a “legitimate rape.” Following an uproar, Akin lost his bid for a Senate seat.* Still, a few other Republicans have followed along, arguing that rape rarely results in pregnancy, to explain why they oppose an exception for rape victims in laws that restrict access to abortion. Whether they know it or not, Stieve’s work is the source for their discredited claim. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warned that saying rape victims rarely get pregnant was “medically inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous.” But the anti-abortion doctor Jack Willke, former head of the National Right to Life Committee, insisted otherwise. “This goes back 30 and 40 years,” he told the Los Angeles Times in the midst of the Akin furor. “When a woman is assaulted and raped, there’s a tremendous amount of emotional upset within her body.” Willke has written that “one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant” is “physical trauma.”

Where did he get this idea? In 1972, another anti-abortion doctor, Fred Mecklenburg, wrote an essay in a book financed by the group Americans United for Life in which he asserted that women rarely get pregnant from rape. Mecklenburg said that:

The Nazis tested the hypothesis that stress inhibits ovulation 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 effects this had on their ovulatory pattern. An extremely high percentage of these women did not ovulate.

Mecklenburg got his facts wrong. Plötzensee Prison wasn’t the gas chamber. And the prolonged trauma of anticipating execution isn’t the same as the shock of rape. But when Hildebrandt, the Harvard historian and anatomist, read about Mecklenburg’s rationale after I wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine and Slate, she recognized the handiwork of Stieve. Mecklenburg had quoted a presentation on a “Nazi experiment” by another obstetrician, from Georgetown University, at a 1967 Washington, D.C., conference on abortion. That doctor had to be talking about Stieve, Hildebrandt says, since “there is no other ‘Nazi experiment’ like this.” It was another link in the chain from Stieve to Mecklenburg to Willke to today’s anti-abortion Republicans.

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