Seek first to understand, then to be understood

So, big surprise, while the economy falters along, people continue to be out of work and the Israelis and Iranians gear up for Armaggedon, what’s the big news rocking the 24/7 news cycle? Todd Akin and American’s favorite pastime, ABORTION! YEA!

First, let me just say, I’m kind of divided on the whole Akin dropping out of the race thing. On one hand he’s clearly not cut out for primetime so sharpen your knives and set the table, Democrats, because I’m sure he’ll let fly something stupid at least once more before Election Day. Then again, this is what Republicans like to do on an all too regular basis. Someone says something stupid and the rest of us immediately throw him under the bus instead of coming to his defense and calling out the media for what it is; a bunch of scare-mongering sensationalists. That’s politics, I guess and the reality of the situation probably dictates that it’d be a good move to move over. I guess we’ll all find out on November 6th.

Until then, though, I’m going to jump to Akin’s defense. Not because I necessarily thinks he deserves it but because I think his position deserves it. And I’m not even saying it deserves it because it’s correct. I’m saying it deserves it because if, as a nation, we stop debating these issues in an objective and rational manner, carefully weighing both sides but, rather, flying off the handle, calling each other all sorts of stupid names and putting words and thoughts in other people’s mouths and minds we might as well just give up. I tell folks who think this country has gone off the rails in terms of political discourse that we should at least be thankful that our politicians aren’t literally beating each other over the head with canes and fire tongs (like cousin Roger did back in 1798) but perhaps they’re right. At least before Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton they both engaged in rhetoric so high it would make Joe Biden look… oh, wait, bad example but you get the idea.

But back to Akin, his comment falls into two categories. First, his poor choice of the phrase “legitimate rape” and, second, his overall message; what he meant had he had a bit more time to prepare for the camera.

By “legitimate rape” he meant forcible rape. It would have been better had he just left off the modifier altogether but not because he thinks there is such a thing as legitimate rape but because the other kind of rape clearly does not factor into this debate on any level. What sort of rape is that, you ask, already, I suspect, indicting me in your mind as someone who thinks a woman in a short skirt deserves to get raped or some such nonsense? We all know that there are plenty of young girls (and a fair number of boys) under the age of 16 (or whatever the age of consent may be in their particular state) that have had sex with men or women over the age that would make it legal. To give an example of how innocent this might be, in Wisconsin, where these is not “close in age” exception, a girl or boy aged 18 years and 0 days would be guilty of statutory rape if he or she slept with a partner aged 17 years and 364 days. If they’re married, however, then it’s completely legal. Can that scenario, even though it is technically rape, really be equated to any other form of rape? (And before anyone goes there, I’m not condoning sex between a 17 year old and an 18 year old although, when there are 10 year olds having sex in the back of classrooms maybe we should be concentrating on that first.)  This also doesn’t even take into account the 8% of rape charges that are false, and therefore truly “illegitimate”; a number four-times as high as false reporting of other crimes, by the way.) Was what he said stupid even with a better choice of words or is there enough truth to his remarks that they are at least worth considering (even if we don’t end up agreeing with them in the end)? After all, that’s what having an open-mind is all about.

Now, again, I agree that even without the phrase “legitimate rape” his remarks weren’t what I’d call intelligent. In fact, speaking as someone who’s coached more than a few people on public speaking and having said a few things in media interviews I’d rather I hadn’t (although nothing even remotely this stupid), he probably should have just left the whole science of the situation out of it, not being a scientist himself and knowing that abortion, especially rape-related abortion, is one of the hottest-button issues in the country. But he didn’t, so let’s just look at what he said with as open a mind as possible, “seeking first to understand and then to be understood”.

He stated that pregnancy in the case of rape is very rare and added that a woman’s body has ways of rejecting a pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape” (again, rape, not including statutory rape or falsely reported rape). As I said above, he should have just stopped with the words “very rare”.

So let’s look at that. Let’s just lay out the possibilities without taking sides quite yet. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network) says that pregnancies resulting from rape happen at a rate of 5%. This is based on a general incidence of pregnancy from one-time sexual intercourse. However, RAINN follows up by saying this number could be lower based on a variety of factors I will get into shortly. But I think we can both agree that 5% isn’t rare although it’s a fair bit more rare than the 27% chance a woman has of getting pregnant when her partner uses the withdrawal method and and 85% chance when no form of birth control is used. I’ve also seen other stats listing rape related pregnancies occurring at a rate of 6.42 to almost 8% with the followup that this is at least twice as common as the consensual rate of 3.1%. The Guttmacher Institute reported 1%. Hmm, 1% up to 8%. Statistically, that’s kind of a big gap but okay, using these numbers I’d say Akin and his doctors are wrong. Rape related pregnancies are not all that rare. But are these numbers accurate? Let’s look at a different analysis.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a number of studies of women in Minnesota and Chicago, victims numbering in the thousands, where no pregnancies occurred. So that’s certainly rare. But whatever, statistics from studies done here and there can often be manipulated. Let’s take a look at some larger numbers to see if any of these statistics actually pass the “smell test”.

A 1995 Dept of Justice Study revealed that 170,000 women were the victims of rape. Another 140,000 were victims of attempted rape but we won’t figure them into the calculation because, biology degree or not, I think we all know how a baby is made.

Now, using statistical analysis and being generous (i.e. favoring a higher percentage outcome) with my numbers, let’s say there are actually 200,000 rapes each year.

Of that 200,000 one third were either too young or too old to get pregnant. That leaves 133,333.

A woman is only capable of getting pregnant 3-5 days per month. 133,333 times 1/6th (5 our of 30) is 22,222.

1/4th of all women of childbearing age have been sterilized. The remaining 3/4ths equals 16,666.

According to another study in the New England Journal of Medicine only half of all rapists actually deposit sperm so now we’re left with 8333.

15% of men and women are naturally sterile. That leaves us with 6020.

Another 15% of women are on the pill or already pregnant. 5118

It takes the average couple 5-10 months to conceive. (Of course, other studies have said there’s only a 3% chance of conception at one time but we’ll go with the 5 month number.) So 5118 divided by 5 is 1023.

Miscarriages happen at an average rate of 15%. 870

870 divided by 200,000 is 4.35 out of 1000. 0.00435. Now that is rare!

So even without the whole “her body has ways of rejecting it” argument we’re at a rare occurrence.

But what about that whole thing of the body rejecting the pregnancy? No, it’s not some magic, hocus-pocus. It’s stress. Many couples will tell you that getting pregnant is not as easy as it sounds and doctors will often point to stress as a major cause in not becoming or not staying pregnant. One doesn’t even need a degree in obstetrics to realize this makes sense. Stress is bad. Pregnancy causes even more stress and this all can often lead to miscarriage. And this is between two people actually trying to have a baby and only dealing with the stresses of day to day life; things like a mortgage, long days at the office and, perhaps, the result of a past successful pregnancy.

I wouldn’t know and I hope to never find out, even second-hand, but my guess is that there aren’t too many things more stressful than rape, if anything, so that minuscule percentage is likely even lower; on the high side like 500 per year in the US.

Finally, roughly half of all rape victims end up carrying their pregnancies to term.

In 2008 there were 825,564 abortions reported to the CDC. So we’re talking about a problem that affects 3 in every 10,000 women. Sure, for those 250 women it’s a big problem I’m sure, but 450 people die each year falling out of bed. Why aren’t we talking about that?

So I think it’s safe to say, agree or disagree with Mr. Akin, his statement, if we seek to understand what he might have meant instead of projecting our own wishes of political demise on him, isn’t unreasonable on any level other than the fact that he doesn’t choose his words carefully (which is at least half the battle in getting people to understand you properly).

As to the greater issue of whether abortion should be legal and just how legal it should be, I’m going to leave that for another post.