As a number of outlets in both the feminist and mainstream media have reported, the Republican-dominated House is considering new restrictions on abortion funding. The so-called “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” is bad enough on its face for those of us who believe that the right to choose an abortion goes hand in hand with the right to access a full range of reproductive services. The truth is, it’s worse than it sounds.
The most devastating aspect of the NTFAA is its unmistakable redefinition of rape. What does that have to do with abortion? A great deal, when you consider the politics around “exemptions” for rape and incest. Many who oppose abortion support exceptions for cases of rape and incest (as well, at least some of the time, for the life of the pregnant woman). Those exemptions are popular, and only a small committed core of far-right political activists oppose them. (One thinks of the execrable but entertaining Alan Keyes, the clownish former presidential candidate, who was fond of asking “How dare we sentence a child to death for his father’s crime?” whenever the subject of these exemptions arose.) Smart pro-lifers know better than to take the radical Keyes stance, so they call for “reasonable” limitations on women’s right to choose, admitting to the wisdom of rape and incest exemptions.
But the NTFAA’s authors want to make sure that those exemptions are defined far more narrowly in the future. As reported Friday:
Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion…
“This bill takes us back to a time when just saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough to qualify as rape,” says Steph Sterling, a lawyer and senior adviser to the National Women’s Law Center. Laurie Levenson, a former assistant US attorney and expert on criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, notes that the new bill’s authors are “using language that’s not particularly clear, and some people are going to lose protection.” Other types of rapes that would no longer be covered by the exemption include rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes. “There are a lot of aspects of rape that are not included,” Levenson says. Bold mine.
As any historian of women’s rights will tell you, the struggle against sexual violence and the struggle for reproductive justice are intertwined. The right of a woman to say “no” to sex and the right to say “no” to an unwanted pregnancy both rest on the same principle of sacred autonomy. Feminists fought hard in the nineteenth century for statutory rape laws that raised the age of consent. One hundred years later, we fought for women’s right to withdraw consent once given, and for the common-sense principle that intoxication vitiates consent. What we’re working towards is a culture that sees rape as defined not solely by the presence of life-threatening force but by the absence of enthusiastic consent. By insisting on the antiquated and inadequate definition of “forcible rape”, the House Republican majority seeks not just to limit women’s access to abortion, but to undo decades worth of expanded protections against sexual violence.
This is, as Thomas at Yes Means Yes put it, “a regressive change in service of a regressive change.”
Please contact your Congressperson, and urge that your representative to vote no on this unconscionable threat to women’s lives and safety.
That’s not hyperbole.