Summary: In 2011, Republicans in the House of Representatives sought to amend a provision in the Hyde Amendment, which bans using Medicaid funds for abortions except in cases of “rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.” The House GOP, seeking to reduce the number of abortions paid for by federal funds, sought to add the word “forcible” before rape. As Nick Baumann pointed out in Mother Jones “[t]his 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.” The change was proposed Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), a staunch abortion opponent, as part of H.R.3 – No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.
Basically, the GOP was arguing that rape is not really rape unless there is force involved, and even then, they gave no threshold for their definition of force. In fact, in using the term “forcible rape” – a term that is not defined under federal criminal code – the Representatives opened up the very real possibility that no abortions would be covered under the rape exception. Instances of date rape, or those perpetrated using drugs or alcohol to incapacitate the victim would also fail to meet this new arbitrary criteria.
After an outcry from groups such as MoveOn.org, Emily’s List, a Twitter campaign targeting House Speaker John Boehner, and a flurry of negative media coverage, the House GOP backed down and did not amend the law. The “forcible rape” language resurfaced in May 2011 in another version of H.R. 3 but did not make it into the draft sent to the Senate.
This attempt to redefine rape in a more stricter sense by the House GOP was notable in that it came at a time that the U.S. Department of Justice was actually broadening its 80-year old legal definition of rape to include more non-consensual sexual acts and to remove gender restrictions. The new broader definition was released in January 2012. Thus the attempt by the House stood out as an even more glaring symbol of the disconnect between the electorate and its elected officials, and specifically between American women and the GOP.
The Definition of Rape In the News:
- Mother Jones: “The House GOP’s Plan to Redefine Rape”
- Mother Jones: “The House GOP Caves on Redefining Rape Bill”
- Raw Story: “Rep: Wasserman Schultz calls GOP abortion bill ‘a violent act against women’”
- Daily Kos: “Congressional Republicans Still Trying to Redefine Rape”
- Boston Globe: “Archaic attitudes in abortion bill”
- U.S. Department of Justice Press Release: “Attorney General Eric Holder Announces Revisions to the Uniform Crime Report’s Definition of Rape”
- Policy Mic: “New Legal Definition of Rape Shows Changing Attitude Towards Masculinity”
Recent legislative actions impacting the legal definition of rape:
- H.R.3 – The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act at opencongress.org
- S.906 – Senate version of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act at opencongress.org.
- Find out if your representatives supported this bill in the House and demand accountability.
- Share this Issue Briefing with friends, family, and colleagues.
- Support national and local advocacy organizations that lobby for real reform to combat rape including:
- Reathorization of the Violence Against Women Act
- Faster DNA Rape Kit processing
- Stronger, more uniform rape laws on the state level
- Stronger laws protecting children from sex offenders
- Improved services for victims of sexual violence
All information and links as of 3/31/2012.