01/11/2012 12:32 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2012

Defining Rape

What a difference a year makes. Last January the House Republicans and a handful of Democrats were pushing to redefine rape in order to further restrict access to abortions. The Hyde Amendment, the federal law that restricts the use of government funds to pay for abortions, exempts pregnancies resulting from rape or incest (and pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman). The "Protect Life Act" (HR 358) and its companion bill the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" (HR 3), each contained a provision that would have rewritten the Hyde Amendment to drastically limit the definitions of rape and incest -- the rape exemption would have been limited to "forcible rape," excluding such crimes as statutory rape and cases in which the woman was drugged, and incest would have been limited to cases in which the woman was a minor. (It should be noted that this legislation would restrict access to abortions in ways beyond redefining rape and incest, and the restrictions would not be limited to government-funded abortions.)

"Forcible rape" is not defined in the federal criminal code, nor was it defined in the legislation. A likely result would be that no pregnancies would be covered by this rape exemption. Under public pressure, the bills were amended, and they passed the House without redefining rape or incest. The bills are currently pending in the Senate. Narrowing the definition of rape, for whatever purpose, belittles the seriousness of the crime and the suffering of its victims.

In contrast, last Friday the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the definition of rape would be expanded to better reflect what rape is and who its victims are. The revisions to the Uniform Crime Report's definition of rape will make reporting of the crime more accurate and provide a better understanding of its effects on victims. The definition is used by the FBI to collect information from local law enforcement agencies about reported rapes, and the new definition is more in sync with most state rape statutes.

The new definition of rape is: "The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."

This definition includes victims and perpetrators of any gender, goes beyond vaginal penetration, and encompasses instances where the victim is incapable of giving consent, including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or because of age, and does not require physical resistance to demonstrate lack of consent. The old definition used by the Department of Justice was so inadequate that it did not include many of the alleged sex crimes of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, or rape facilitated by "date rape" drugs, which make victims weak and confused, or even causes them to pass out, so that they cannot refuse sex or defend themselves.

Rape is a serious crime that often has life-long consequences for its victims -- negatively impacting their physical, mental, social, and economic well-being -- and may include pregnancies that need to be terminated. The definition of rape should not be toyed with for political ends such as further restricting the constitutional right to an abortion. The new Department of Justice definition of rape recognizes conduct that will not result in pregnancy, and therefore, not add to the need for federally funded, or any, abortions. However, whether or not a rape results in a pregnancy should not limit how it is defined in law. The Justice Department's expanded definition of rape is a positive step in recognizing all of its victims and the brutality of the crime, and in holding perpetrators accountable. Anything else belittles the crime and its victims.