Arthur Caplan

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Cultural Politics Reproductive Ethics

Sabine Hildebrandt, MD
William Seidelman, MD
Arthur Caplan, PhD

A recurring assertion in the ongoing debate on abortion in the United States is the statement that pregnancy is an uncommon consequence of rape. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., has recently argued on the floor of the House of Representatives that an exception for rape wasn’t necessary in a proposed law banning abortions after 20 weeks because “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.”

Why do so many Americans believe this claim? Where does it come from?

According to some, the idea that you can’t get pregnant during a rape comes from research done by the Nazis on female prisoners by physicians in Germany during World War II. Emily Bazelon, for example, points in this direction suggesting that Nazi researchers determined that the trauma of rape inhibited the likelihood of pregnancy. It is this ‘finding’ that has survived in our current debates over abortion.

As controversial as the subject of abortion is, irrespective of one’s personal opinion, it is important that the evidence supporting an assertion that rape inhibits pregnancy be based on credible evidence. Such evidence does not exist.

The controversial nature of claims about rape and pregnancy are further exacerbated by their supposed reference to research on victims of Nazi terror. The medical crimes of the Hitler period were so horrendous that it is difficult to imagine what they might not have done. Indeed, given what is known about medical practices in Nazi Germany, research on rape and pregnancy is plausible. However, there is no evidence to suggest that it actually happened.

The three of us have examined medical practices by German doctors during the Hitler period and have heretofore been unaware of an experiment that included the study of rape and pregnancies of Nazi victims. Dr. Hildebrandt is a native of Germany and anatomist at Harvard Medical School whose research has focused on the exploitation of victims of the National Socialist regime by German anatomists. She recently undertook a survey of the literature to determine evidence of research on rape and pregnancy in Nazi Germany and tried to trace the original medical experiments on which some of the current statements on rape and pregnancy are allegedly based.

Bazelon quoted a 1972 statement by Dr. Fred Mecklenburg, who wrote:

“[…] medical research indicates that a woman exposed to emotional trauma (such as rape) will not ovulate even if she is “scheduled” to. In Germany, during World War II, 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 patterns. An extremely high percentage of these women did not ovulate” (Fred Mecklenburg, The indications for induced abortion, In: Hilgers T, Horan D: Abortion and Social Justice, 1972: 49).

Mecklenburg likely based this paragraph on an oral presentation by Georgetown Professor Andre Hellegers at a 1967 Washington D.C. conference on abortion. Full proceedings of this conference were never published. A popular as well as a scholarly publication based on the conference did not include references to Nazi experiments. Also, no other publications by Mecklenburg or Hellegers refer to this topic.

The apparent myth of “rape and pregnancy” most likely resulted from confusion with the documented research of Professor Hermann Stieve of the University of Berlin who is known to have exploited female prisoners for research on the effect of stress on the female genital tract. To the best of our knowledge, Stieve’s research did not include a study of rape and its impact on pregnancy. Stieve’s internationally recognized research was published during and after the war and it is probable that Mecklenburg and Hellegers, who were both noted gynecologist, were somewhat aware of it.

It should be noted that for much of the postwar period documentation of what doctors in Nazi Germany actually did has been suppressed. It was only in 2012 that the Federal Chamber of Physicians of Germany officially acknowledged the pervasive role played by German doctors in the realization of the Nazi program of eugenics, euthanasia and horrific experimentation that contributed towards the worst scientifically organized program of human destruction in the history of humankind. A new generation of scholars in Germany is undertaking research into the role played by the German medical profession, including the universities and research institutes. Archives and data sources that were previously not accessible have become available to researchers. As of today, evidence of Nazi research on rape and pregnancy does not exist.

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