“A regressive change in service of a regressive change”: the looming disaster of H.R. 3

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.

7 thoughts on ““A regressive change in service of a regressive change”: the looming disaster of H.R. 3

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for “A regressive change in service of a regressive change”: the looming disaster of H.R. 3 at Hugo Schwyzer [hugoschwyzer.net] on Topsy.com

  2. Hmm, America wants to become more like east-central europe. Who knew?

    Up until 1999, here in Hungary, it wasn’t illegal to rape your wife — she gave blanket consent by marrying you. And the implementation of the law is still very weak on non-forcible rape — and even on forcible rape — if you manage to break an arm while defending yourself, you might be able to prosecute it, but otherwise it’s pretty hard..

    Actually, our word for rape, nemi erÅ‘szak, means “sexual violence”, and thus, in most people’s minds, if it’s not horribly violent, it can’t be rape. There was a case a few years back with a fifteen year old girl who was living in an institution for the mentally handicapped (she had mental retardation). The judge ruled that she should have fought back harder. There was also a case where a girl’s father forced her to do certain sexual acts if she got bad grades (sex for the lowest grade, oral for the second lowest). She was above the age of consent (14 years old). The judge ruled that she should have studied harder. It’s estimated that only 4% of rapes are reported.

    Strangely enough, our abortion laws are extremely liberal. It was legalised in 1953, just after Stalin died, and a woman just has to put in a request — which is now only a formality and regardless of the situation it’ll be granted. So there’s hope. We manage to have abysmal rape laws/execution of laws while having good abortion laws. Maybe America will be able to keep her good rape laws/execution of laws even if she goes back a few steps with abortion laws.

    Hungary’s excuse is that we’re just coming out of the dark ages since the Berlin wall came down and it takes time to catch up after forty years of cultural and economic stagnation. America…can’t blame her desires to go back to 1950’s on being an eastern bloc country.

  3. Given that I usually comment only when I disagree with you I thought I should let you know once in a while when I agree with you. This is one of them – both on the danger/wrongness of narrowing the rape definition (this is an issue close to heart for me) and that a restriction on abortion services is not a good thing.

  4. @Pthalo:
    It wasn’t until 1995 that all 50 U.S. states had laws against spousal rape, so we are not that far ahead of you, sadly.

    Keyes’ comment, “How dare we sentence a child to death for his father’s crime?” is so misogynist it’s simply absurd. Even the “child” is a “he.” Where is the “she” in this? Where is the mother, the human body that will nurture and grow that “he”? How dare we sentence HER for his crime?

    How can they possibly not consider a man who drugs his date and then has sex with her, without her consent, rape? Or a young girl who is being molested by her father/brother/uncle, and doesn’t fight back because she knows it’s futile?

    We’ve given far too much to these neanderthals in Washington. No more!

  5. I’m opposed to this law just generally on choice grounds, but I think that the claims regarding any narrowing effect of the term “forcible”, beyond excluding statutory rape (i.e.: consensual but underage, which may be problematic enough), may be spurious. Traditionally, rape has been divided into “forcible” and “statutory” categories: everything that’s not “statutory” is considered “forcible”. It’s sloppy drafting (unsurprising) and ought to be defined somewhere in the statute, definitely. One problem here could be the application of a blanket federal policy incorporating the criminal codes of 50 individual states (I’m not sure if any state defines “forcible” in a way that excludes drugs, alcohol, mental incapacity or date rape, but I’m not aware of any that do), so I’ll concede that this isn’t necessarily an unwarranted concern. Federal criminal law defines rape or the equivalent, essentially, in three places that I’m aware of: 18 USC § 2241 (“aggravated sexual abuse”: any sexual act (not just penetration) where force, threat of death, serious bodily injury or kidnapping, or rendering unconscious or by unknown administration of drug or intoxicant); § 2242 (“sexual abuse”: by less-serious threats, or when the victim is incapable of appreciating the nature of the conduct or physically unable to refuse consent), and Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Rape and Aggravated Sexual Assault, essentially incorporates most of what’s listed above). All of this could and would probably be taken as a prior indication of what Congress considers “rape”. I’m not going to comment on whether there are also problems with the politics, optics, ongoing attempts to narrow the definition of rape, etc., but I don’t think they’re there (necessarily yet) for the purposes of this particular law.

Comments are closed.