01.30.11

GOP Abortion Bill Redefines Rape

"The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," which limits the government's definition of rape to cut off many victims from abortion coverage, might not pass Obama's desk—but it sends a message to all women that certain kinds of sexual assault don't count, says Michelle Goldberg.

In their quest to deny reproductive rights to as many women as possible, Republican congressmen are seeking to narrow the federal government’s definition of rape in order to exclude many victims from abortion coverage. “The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” or H.R. 3, is “one of the most extreme bills that we’ve seen,” says Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. If enacted, it would affect tens of millions of women’s health insurance, whether or not the federal government subsidizes their plans. And the bill will send a message to all women that certain kinds of sexual assault don’t count as rape at all.

Since 1976, under the Hyde Amendment, there’s been a ban on federal funding for abortion, which applies to Medicaid recipients as well as federal employees and military families. In 1993, though, Congress legislated an exemption for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Such pregnancies are not uncommon—according to the Guttmacher Institute, at least 9,100 women seek abortions after forced sexual intercourse each year. H.R. 3 would prevent many of these women from using their health insurance to pay for abortions, whether their plan is public or private.

Under H.R. 3, the only victims of “forcible rape" would qualify for federally funded abortions. Victims of statutory rape—say, a 13-year-old girl impregnated by a 30-year-old man—would be on their own. So would victims of incest if they’re over 18. And while “forcible rape” isn’t defined in the criminal code, the addition of the adjective seems certain to exclude acts of rape that don’t involve overt violence—say, cases where a woman is drugged or has a limited mental capacity. “It’s basically putting more restrictions on what was defined historically as rape,” says Keenan.

Beyond that, says Keenan, the bill would give states the option of refusing Medicaid coverage for all abortions, even in the most brutal of rape cases, or when a medical complication leaves a woman’s life at risk.

Because of other provisions of H.R. 3, the bill’s restrictions would also affect women who don’t qualify for Medicaid or work for the federal government. During the debate over health-care reform, Bart Stupak and Joseph Pitts put forward an amendment that would have banned health-insurance policies that cover abortion, as 87 percent do, from participating in the proposed health-insurance exchanges. The Stupak-Pitts amendment would have created an overwhelming incentive for private plans to drop abortion coverage in order to be eligible for government subsidies.

The bill is the product of a party that is willing to go much further than most people realize to force women to bear children against their will.

It was defeated, but the new bill, H.R. 3, goes far beyond it—NARAL calls it “Stupak on Steroids.” Under the new bill, policies that cover abortion would be ineligible for the tax breaks that individuals and small businesses get when they purchase insurance. It essentially imposes a new tax on the vast majority of health-care plans unless they drop abortion coverage, even for some victims of sexual assault.

Michelle Goldberg: The Twisted Abortion Doctor“The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion” bill will easily pass the House, which has 246 abortion opponents. Indeed, while Republicans didn’t talk much about abortion during the midterms, House Speaker John Boehner has said the bill is “one of our highest legislative priorities.” It will have a much harder time getting through the Senate, though it conceivably could if enough Democrats capitulate in the face of the bill’s demagogic title. Even if that happens, though, Obama could probably be convinced to veto it.

Yet H.R. 3 is still scary, because it demonstrates a startling new extremism in the GOP. In the past, even the most resolutely antiabortion Republicans usually made exceptions for rape and for life-threatening medical emergencies. H.R. 3 is the product of a House willing to jettison even those minor protections for women. As Amanda Terkel reported in The Huffington Post last September, a large number of Republican congressional candidates, particularly those supported by the Tea Party, “not only oppose abortion, but want to bar women who have been victims of rape or incest from having access to the procedure.” Now that many of them have won, we’ll see more attempts to radically curtail reproductive rights. Some will almost certainly come as amendments attached to important bills, which could hold the legislative process hostage to the demands of the antiabortion movement. H.R. 3 is the product of a party that is willing to go much further than most people realize to force women to bear children against their will.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.