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Republicans Are Still Trying to Redefine Rape

Only their tactics have changed

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

“Rape” should not be a confusing word to define. Its primary meaning describes a very specific act. Around this time two years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a fairly comprehensive legal definition of rape: “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.” That didn't stop Republicans from trying to redefine the word to suit their ideological perspectives, as they attached words like “forcible” and “legitimate” to a crime that requires no qualification.

They have tried to redefine rape legislatively, too, most recently with a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act was abruptly pulled from consideration last week after several Republican legislators, led by women in the party, spoke up against one aspect of the bill: that women impregnated from rape who seek an abortion after 20 weeks must prove that they reported the rape to police. The penalty for getting an abortion after 20 weeks? Up to five years in prison, and potentially a fine.

The same restriction was in the 2013 version of the act that passed the House, so it is hardly shocking that Republicans would try to pass it again with the same language. After all, all but six Republicans in the House voted for the original version—including North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, whose opposition to the rape-reporting restriction last week earned so much notice that it nearly (but not quite) drowned out reminders of her support for the 2013 version. 

The internal Republican hubbub over the bill is not terribly noteworthy, nor does it have all that much of a shelf life beyond those who enjoy declaring which party may or may not be “in disarray.” What lies beneath this federal push to ban late-term abortions, however, is much more disturbing. To stop abortions, Republicans in Congress have shown a consistent desire to employ the rape culture ingrained in our legal system to their benefit, manipulating survivors in the process. 

It was a cynical tactic, and Republicans employed it in service of a bill that was largely ceremonial, but which had a deadline of sorts: the March for Life demonstration, held yearly on or around January 22, the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. President Obama had already issued a veto threat, so the bill had no chance of becoming law. After its embarrassing withdrawal, a replacement bill, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, was passed in its place on Thursday. 

Ellmers’ fellow North Carolina Republican, Rep. Virginia Foxx, tried to sell the bill as something other than an effort to impress anti-abortion forces. “This is not driven at all by messaging or by an anniversary but our strong sense of morality,” Foxx said on the House floor. Just yesterday, though, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas gave away the gambit when he told Rev. E.W. Jackson during a conference call that “our Republican females”—yes, that’s the word he used for women, with a possessive—“sent the entirely wrong message” when they forced the party to pull the bill. 

While I can’t speak to Foxx’s moral urgency or Gohmert’s legislative priorities, the bill certainly couldn’t have been about some pressing need to stop the flood of late-term abortions—because there's no such thing. Only 1.4 percent of abortions in the United States are performed after 20 weeks, and according to the Guttmacher Institute, just 34 percent of all abortion providers even provide services up until 20 weeks. Only 16 percent of all of them offer it after 24 weeks. Last week’s bill did not just target late-term abortion patients. The rape provision gave it away as a part of the party’s plan to ban all abortion procedures by rendering them inaccessible.

Past state laws have imposed rules and regulations on reproductive health clinics that make it virtually impossible for them to keep their doors open. The 20-week measure proposed in 2013 and again last week would put an undue burden on the survivors themselves, forcing them to do something they are not otherwise legally required to do in order to avoid birthing a rapist’s baby. Indeed, 68 percent of all rapes, according to RAINN, are not reported to law enforcement, for reasons ranging from fear of retribution to an utter lack of faith in our criminal justice system to apprehend, let alone prosecute rapists. Even those statistics are incomplete, as Jessica Valenti noted last week in The Guardian, since the numbers of young victims of incest are hard to account for.

So if you’re going to require that pregnant survivors of rape report that crime to law enforcement before getting a late-term abortion, should there not be accompanying legislative (or at the very least, rhetorical) efforts to make it safer for survivors to do so? How about increased federal support for sexual assault support groups and law enforcement initiatives to improve those rape-reporting statistics? There is nothing like that in the Republicans’ bill. 

That's intentional. Republican legislators don't want to make it less difficult for survivors to report their rapes; they're counting on it. The bill’s viability depends on that 68 percent number staying right where it is, or even going up, all in the service of preventing late-term abortions.

A lot has changed since 2013, when the bill was last put forth, that makes its alarming cynicism all the more apparent. We are much more aware now of the plight of survivors of sexual assault. Particularly on college campuses and in the military, the issue surged into the national consciousness. Phrases like “affirmative consent” were not just terms we heard in discussions with fellow feminists and amongst activists, but in the mainstream press and in legislation like the law California passed last year. Americans have a better understanding of what rape is than they ever did before. Too bad the same can't be said for House Republicans.