THE BLOG
01/30/2011 08:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How 173 Congressmen Are Trying to Redefine Rape

The Republican congressional caucus knew why they were returned to the majority on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010: to do the people's work. Turning aside encomiums for his party's dominant election-night performance, the soon-to-be House Speaker, John Boehner (R-Oh.), called the returns "a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people." Remarked Boehner:

this is not a time for celebration ... not when one in 10 of our fellow citizens are out of work ... not when we have buried our children under a mountain of debt ... not when our Congress is held in such low esteem. This is a time to roll up our sleeves. To look forward with determination. And to take the first steps toward building a better future for our kids and grandkids.

Three months later, what were the top priorities of the new Congress? First, repealing the 111th Congress's health-care reform legislation. Second, re-defining rape.

Since 1976, the use of government money -- from agencies such as Medicare, Medicaid, the military, the Peace Corps or the Indian Health Services -- to subsidize abortions has been limited by federal laws. These laws have typically included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or in cases where the life of the mother is at risk. The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," which was introduced last week in the House with 173 co-sponsors will ostensibly eliminate the need for numerous annual abortion-funding prohibitions and ensure that no federal agency falls out of the restriction's purview. Another section of the bill, however, would re-write the rape and incest provision. Going forward, if H.R. 3 becomes law, only incest victims younger than 18 could receive taxpayer funding for an abortion. Similarly, the longstanding exemption for victims of rape would be altered to only apply to cases of "forcible rape."

What is forcible rape? The short answer is, it is nothing. As Nick Baumann of Mother Jones notes, the phrase does not exist in the federal criminal code. Nor is it possible to divine any explicit legislative intent here, as the provision contains no definition of the strange term. The authors are drafting based on pure imagination. One cannot know now how precisely such a restriction could be interpreted and implemented. In some states, where no distinction for instances of forcible or violent rape exist, it is feasible that the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" would deny federal funds to all rape victims.

It seems the 173 co-sponsors are attempting to create a federal hierarchy of rape victimhood. Presumably, a victim still bearing the scars of her attack would be eligible. A woman who was drugged would not. A broken bone may be enough for qualification. A woman with limited mental capacity would be out of luck. Physical trauma, claim those 173 congressmen, is to be given priority over mental trauma.

The Clothesline Project is a program started in 1990 to call attention to the sufferers of sexual assault by displaying t-shirts designed by those victims. The shirts, many of which include written narratives, bear witness to the experiences of women (and men) who have been attacked. Blue and green t-shirts represent those who have survived incest and sexual abuse. Red, pink and orange are for survivors of rape and sexual assault. White shirts represent those who subsequently died. Under this new proposal, those individuals would be further divvied up, placed into illusory categories of those who experiences qualify them for assistance and those who fail to measure up to as-yet unclear guidelines.

One shirt from the display, red, reads: "I said 'NO!' Didn't you hear me?" Chances are, that's a rape that would no longer be taken seriously after implementation of H.R. 3. The designer of a green shirt reading "I have the right to refuse sex!!!" could find herself in the same position. An orange shirt that confesses "I was raped by somebody I use[d] to trust" tells a too-common story that could, because of this proposed edit to existing law, no longer qualify a victim for federal support.

The language of this bill is not only out of sync with legal precedent, but with common sense and common dignity. Co-sponsor Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., argues that "the language of H.R. 3 was not intended to change existing law regarding taxpayer funding for abortion in cases of rape, nor is it expected that it would do so." Yet such a reading is at a dissonance with the plain meaning of the words used. If there was no intent to limit the rape exemption, then why doesn't the bill leave the existing language in place?

According to data from the Center For Reproductive Rights, out of the 7.4 million women of child-bearing age covered by Medicaid in 2006, there were only 85 abortions in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening medical conditions. This is not a proposal that would impact the lives of most Americans. What it would do, however, is add to the pain and difficulty of those who are already most vulnerable.