A Republican bill seeking to permanently cut off federal funding for abortions has angered women's groups that say it alters the definition of rape, permitting coverage for the procedure only in cases in which the rape is considered "forcible."
The bill, called the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act, would make permanent several provisions that have been law for years but require annual renewal by Congress. It is a top priority of Republican leaders who took control of the House after the November elections.
The most well-known provision that would become permanent under the bill is the Hyde Amendment, which prevents some federally funded health-care programs from covering abortions. For years, it has allowed exemptions in cases of rape and incest, and when the life of the woman is threatened.
Under the proposed language, however, rape becomes "forcible rape." Critics say the modifier could distinguish it from other kinds of sexual assault that are typically recognized as rape, including statutory rape and attacks that occur because of drugs or verbal threats.
"It speaks to a distinction between rape where there must be some element of force in order to rise to the standard, and rape where there is not," said Steph Sterling, director of government relations for the National Women's Law Center. "The concern here is that it takes us back to a time where just saying no was not enough."
The bill's supporters, however, say groups such as Sterling's are exaggerating the possibilities to serve their abortion-rights agenda. They say it largely codifies what has already been practice, which is to bar federal employees, members of the military and those who receive federal assistance from using taxpayer money to pay for abortions, with a few exceptions.
"Rape is an abhorrent crime of violence," Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), one of 10 Democratic sponsors of the bill, said in a statement. The bill "was not intended to change existing law regarding taxpayer funding for abortion in cases of rape, nor is it expected that it would do so. Nonetheless, the legislative process will provide an opportunity to clarify this should such a need exist."
The bill has 173 co-sponsors in the House. If passed, however, it will receive a chillier reception in the Senate and could face a veto by President Obama, who supports abortion rights but has said he would like to see a decrease in abortions in the United States.
The Hyde Amendment has been renewed every year since it was introduced in 1976, but calls to make it permanent became more urgent last year after the passage of the health-care overhaul, which some critics think has expanded the use of federal money for abortions.
The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act was intended, in part, to remedy that, but abortion-rights groups say it goes much further and cite the "forcible rape" inclusion as one egregious example. Although the bill's backers say it is not meant to change a widely held definition of rape, critics say the new wording could leave it open to interpretation by the courts or others.
In a sign of the potential confusion that could arise, one senior GOP aide said the wording was meant to prevent coverage for minors who engage in consensual sex that results in pregnancy. In some states, consensual sex involving minors is considered statutory rape.
But Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said he interpreted the wording to exclude all statutory rape, which is typically understood as sex between an adult and a minor.
"We don't believe that the Hyde Amendment has ever been construed to permit federal funding for abortion based merely on the youth of the mother," said Johnson, whose group supports exemptions only in cases where the life of the woman is threatened.