Anti-Abortion Group to Lawmakers: Please, Let's Talk About Rape!

Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, you're off the hook.

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 6:11 AM EST

Comments about "legitimate" rapes and pregnancies that "God intended" got several GOP politicians in trouble last year, and cost the party at least two seats in the Senate. But now one of the country's most extreme anti-abortion groups is encouraging Republican politicians to keep talking about rape. Personhood USA—the group behind efforts to grant fertilized eggs the same rights as adult humans—announced last week that it is launching a new campaign to push lawmakers to strip rape exceptions from federal abortion laws.

Although abortion has long been a third-rail issue in American politics, many anti-choice politicians have felt compelled—either out of personal belief or because of public pressure—to allow for narrow exceptions to all-out bans on abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. Federal policy has, for the most part, aligned with those exceptions. The Hyde Amendment, the legislation that governs much of the federal government's relationship with abortion providers, forbids federal funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and where the life of the mother is endangered. But Personhood USA's new "Save the 1" campaign wants to eliminate those exceptions, and eventually make all abortions—even for rape victims—illegal.

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But in focusing on the rape exceptions, Personhood USA risks encouraging more comments that get GOPers in trouble. In 2012, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) claimed that abortion for rape victims is a non-issue because the bodies of women who are actually raped will deflect sperm. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock (R-Ind.) said that if a woman becomes pregnant from rape, it's something that "God intended to happen." Then there was Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who argued that "life of the mother" exceptions are bunk because "with modern technology and science, you can't find one instance" in which a woman's life is at risk because of a pregnancy. All three of them lost in November.

GOP rape comments were enough of a problem that earlier this month the Susan B. Anthony List, which calls itself a feminist pro-life group, started a training program to teach Republican lawmakers how to talk about rape (or, not talk about, as the case may be). But Personhood USA's Save the 1 campaign is urging Republicans to keep harping on the subject. (RH Reality Check first flagged the group's press release.)

Save the 1 doesn't appear to want GOPers like Akin and Mourdock to tone down their rhetoric. Its website features an image of a fetus in crosshairs and the message "Convicted rapists don't get the death penalty, so why should the innocent child?" as well as another of a baby under a school bus with the headline "Don't throw the special needs baby or rape-conceived baby under the bus!" The group's leader, Rebecca Kiessling, is a national advocate on this issue who says she was conceived in rape. "Rape and abortion are wrong for the same reason; they are both violent acts of aggression against another person," Kiessling said in a press release. "If you really care about rape victims, you should want to protect them from the rapist, and from the abortion, and NOT the baby. A baby is not the worst thing which can happen to a rape victim—an abortion is."

The group says its first target is the Hyde Amendment, a 1976 law that is reauthorized every year and prohibits federal funds from being used to provide abortion services except in the case of rape, incest, or if the woman's life is endangered. This ban has a direct effect on poor women who are on Medicaid, forbidding them from using the federal health insurance program to pay for an abortion. "Our mission is simple—remove exceptions from the law, beginning with the Hyde Amendment," the group says. "In order to achieve this, we must encourage every pro-life organization to be a standard-bearer, and help them to understand why we must not accept the exceptions—whether it's within legislation, or in a candidate's position on abortion."

Republicans have previously tried to narrow the rape exception by seeking to change what qualifies as rape, as we saw in 2011's No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. That bill would have limited the exemption to "forcible rape"—a phrase with no formal definition in the federal criminal code. That legislation could have excluded cases in which a woman is date raped, drugged, under age, or otherwise unable to consent.

While Hyde is the main law defining how federal funds can be used with regard to abortion, there are a number of other ways that anti-abortion politicians could go after those exemptions:

Women in the military: Congress just approved a new law at the end of 2012 that will allow women in the military who are raped to use their government health care to pay for an abortion. For many years, women in the military had more restrictions on abortion services than any other government employees. This change finally corrected that. Foes of abortion rights would like to see the policy changed back.

In the tax code: Another way that anti-choice politicians have previously targeted abortion is through the tax code—specifically, by seeking to block women in some cases from using tax credits or deductions to pay for abortions or for health care plans that cover abortions. House Republicans have made similar attempts before, seeking to extend Hyde through the tax code. As we pointed out at the time, this would turn the IRS into a national abortion auditor, forcing it to determine if women had used tax benefits appropriately. A more extreme approach would bar health insurance from covering abortions at all.

The Affordable Care Act: Whether or not health plans subsidized by the federal government could be used to pay for abortion was a huge fight during debate over President Barack Obama's health care reform effort in 2010. Anti-abortion lawmakers wanted to make it illegal for federally subsidized health insurance to cover abortions. To resolve this sticking point, the new law required Americans who received federal subsidies and wanted to have elective abortion coverage included in their health insurance plan to pay for the abortion coverage with a separate check, a resolution that did not please abortion foes in Congress. But if Personhood USA got its way, government subsidized health insurance plans would be forbidden from covering any abortions at all.

Personhood USA hopes their campaign will force other pro-life groups and politicians to endorse their argument. "We must not accept the exceptions," the group says.