This past week House Republicans did something truly remarkable, which was to scuttle an anti-abortion bill they had planned to pass on Thursday. [*] This bill, which would have banned abortions at 20 weeks’ gestation and after, was intended to please all the Fetus People zealots in Washington for their annual anti-Roe v. Wade protest march, and since the bill was not passed the Fetus People were mightily pissed. To placate them, the House hustled and passed a bill that bans federal tax dollars from being spent on abortions, which of course has been the law for some time already.
What stalled the bill was a provision that permitted abortion in the case of rape, but only if the woman had filed a police report at the time of the rape. But most rape victims do not file police reports, mostly because they are too traumatized to do so. Some Republican women balked at this provision. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), who had voted for the same bill in earlier congresses, spoke for the group. No doubt remembering earlier GOP embarrassments regarding government policies and rape ( Todd Akin, anyone?), Ellmers said the bill as worded maybe should be re-thought.
“It’s a messaging issue,” said North Carolina GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers, whose objections to the restrictive rape language helped scuttle the bill and whose office later drew dozens of protesters who had wanted the stricter approach. “I believe our heart is in the right place, and we’re standing up for what is right. But I think in order to be able to have that conversation with the American people, we have always got to be speaking from the perspective of the individual and … having compassion for women in all situations.”
Right-wing men reacted to this rather mild statement as if Ellmers were raising money for the George Tillman Memorial Late-Term Abortion Drive-Through Clinic and All You Can Eat Buffet. Joan Walsh writes,
The boys over at Red State are leading the charge, with sexually insecure sad sack Erick Erickson calling her “the GOP’s Abortion Barbie” (his sick nickname for Wendy Davis) and now another Red Stater, Aaron Gardner, asking “Is Renee Ellmers worthy of life?”
That’s cold, especially considering Ellmers has had solid teabag credentials until this moment. For example, in 2013 she tried to shield men from paying into the same health insurance risk pool with women, essentially saying that women ought to pay more for health insurance because they have girl parts. And she has been solidly anti-abortion rights her entire career. She was a co-sponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which tried to confer full rights and protections of citizenship on fertilized eggs. But one small deviation, and now she’s persona non grata and perhaps not worthy of life herself? Walsh continues,
It’s fascinating to me: Right-wingers love their Mama Grizzlies, tough gals like Palin and Sen. Joni Ernst to name two, as long as they stay in line. But when they stray from wingnut orthodoxy, they can expect the same abuse female Democrats get. I’ve been looking around to see if any conservative women have stood up for Ellmers, in the face of RedState’s ugly assault, but I haven’t found any. I will surely update this post if I do.
The same thing is true of the Right’s black members. For example, back in 2011 one-time GOP frontrunner Herman Cain had to apologize after being hit with a firestorm from the Right for saying use of the N word is insensitive. I wrote at the time,
So let’s get this straight — a black candidate for the Republican nomination for president is acceptable only as long as he doesn’t play the “race card,” meaning that he must not acknowledge racism in America. But it’s OK for Herman Cain to say that African-Americans are brainwashed into voting for Democrats, a statement I find curiously racist.
In other words, women and racial minorities are welcome into the GOP as long as say what they’re told to say by the white guys.
But the 20-week ban was narrowly defeated, resulting in many newspaper editorials exulting that Republican “moderates” had won the day, which has little to do with what actually happened. Especially since Ellmers is to “moderate” what swine flu is to “well.”
The funny thing is, clearly Graham thinks he’s smarter than Akin: he insists he doesn’t “want to get us into a spot where we’re debating what legitimate is.” But he doesn’t seem to understand that the whole effort to “define” rape, which he’s apparently now spearheading, is precisely about deciding whether a woman’s claim of rape is “legitimate” or not.
At its heart, this Republican project is predicated on the belief that women lie about rape, but Republicans can outsmart them. If some Republican women believe that requiring women to make a police report is draconian, then Graham is searching for another way to define a woman’s rape as legitimately deserving of an exception to their 20-week abortion ban.
The built-in dilemma for Graham at the heart of the issue is that the zealotry is fueled by fear and loathing of women and their sexuality. I’m sure some activists sincerely want to stop abortion, but if stopping abortion were the primary motivation of the anti-reproductive rights movement it wouldn’t increasingly be anti-contraception as well, since contraceptive use is the one proven way to reduce abortion. No, this is about sex and about preventing women from being free sexual agents the old-fashioned way — by keeping the threat of pregnancy hanging over their heads. Allowing women some benefit of the doubt about whether they were raped, or not, is not going to fly with these folks. But there’s no way any committee of men is going to come up with a litmus test to prove whether a woman “deserves” to make her own choices. Someone might want to womansplain that to Graham.
Rape exemptions have come to dominate the abortion debate. Abortion rights groups use lack of concern for rape victims as an illustration of the heartlessness of their opponents. Their opponents propose exemptions to show that they’re reasonable. But, really, it makes no sense either way. The question of when a fetus inside a woman’s body becomes a human being is theological. If you truly believe that human life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, you can’t admit any exceptions. The only real debate is whether you get to impose your religious beliefs on the entire country.
Not that anybody’s trying to be that rational. “I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape,” Senator Lindsey Graham told the anti-abortion marchers. This was four days after Graham announced that he was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s very possible that the phrase “this definitional problem with rape” will last longer than his candidacy.
Even having a “definitional problem with rape” pretty much sums up the problem, IMO, but I’m not holding my breath until Graham sees that.
[*The bill, called the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, was based on several fictions; one, that medical science has determined a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks' gestation (not true; it's currently thought the earliest a fetus can feel pain is 29 weeks); that abortions after 20 weeks' gestation are "very late term" (a normal human pregnancy lasts 40 weeks; 20 weeks obviously is smack at the halfway point) and that a human fetus is viable at 20 weeks. In fact, although viability varies from pregnancy to pregnancy, no human fetus in recorded history has survived outside the womb after only 20 weeks gestation. The standard threshold of viability is considered to be 24 weeks' gestation, and that's still very iffy. It's true that a very tiny percentage of babies have survived after 22 or 23 weeks, albeit with severe disabilities, but the odds are so low and the infant's quality of life so compromised that doctors generally recommend palliative care only for a baby that premature. The Fetus People have been marching into courts and demanding that 20 weeks be considered the legal point of viability, arguing that the date at which a fetus becomes viable is a matter of scientific dispute. True, but there's no dispute that 20 weeks' ain't it.]
Update: What actually happened when one woman reported a rape.