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One doctor's opinion does not science make

Sometime during their first year of law school, students learn about the requirements for expert witnesses called during trials. The rules are that, typically, you want someone who is a recognized expert in their field, has published extensively and has other experts in that field who corroborate that expert’s theories and opinions.
Even if an expert witness meets all these requirements, opposing counsel is still going to question this person’s credentials. While this is sometimes an overzealous process, it helps the tribunal accurately decide which expert testimony is factual and accurate.
However, in the case of Representative Todd Akin, when he decided to spout pseudo-science in an interview, there was no such safety net ensuring that his incorrect and potentially dangerous views were backed by tested science.
When Akin was asked about his reasoning behind restricting access to abortions even in cases of rape and incest, Akin replied, “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 whole thing down.”
What Todd Akin was relying on was the work of one lone doctor, Dr. John C. Willkie. Willkie published a book in 1985 and an article in 1999 on his theory that pregnancy cannot result from rape.
His theory is based on the fact that the trauma surrounding rape disrupts normal hormonal balances that are required for a successful pregnancy. While this doesn’t sound implausible, it has been roundly rebuffed by studies and empirical data.
A study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that pregnancy resulted in about 5 percent of rape cases.
Even if that wasn’t enough, there are laws on the books in some states that acknowledge that pregnancy can result from rape.
Currently, in just 19 states there are laws that prohibit rapists from seeking custody of any children resulting from their crime. On the other hand, this means that in 31 states there are no laws prohibiting rapists from seeking custody of the children they violently fathered.
While there is no empirical data about how many rapists do ultimately seek custody rights, considering that 75 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched that a rapist may try to claim his parental rights.
While Akin’s comments have been loudly rebuked by politicians from both sides of the aisle, that didn’t stop the GOP from unveiling an abortion platform that would prevent women’s access to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.
It also hasn’t stopped numerous commentators from clinging to and disseminating this pseudo-science to defend their positions on rape and abortion. While Akin’s statements have been discredited, it seems as though many agree with the sentiment behind them.
We look to politicians as our elected representatives for information. We need to hold them accountable to check their facts before they speak. When students or academics write papers, we ask them to cite their sources and to back up the claims they make. Politicians need to do the same.
Disseminating this kind of unproven science is dangerous. The national dialogue about a woman’s right to choose is already filled with so much misinformation and vitriol, the last thing this debate needs is one more politician mucking up the already murky conversation with pseudo-science and unchecked facts.

Brittany Sharkey is a second-year law student from Oceanside, Calif.  She graduated from NYU in 2010 with a degree in politics.  Follow her on Twitter @brittanysharkey.