Renée Loth

Archaic attitudes in abortion bill

By Renée Loth
February 5, 2011

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UNDER PRESSURE from appalled voters, House Republicans have removed the most galling provisions from their “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act’’ — the ones that would have changed the legal definition of rape and incest as exceptions to the funding ban. But there is still plenty to dislike about this outmoded bill.

It is duplicative, since federal funding of abortion has been outlawed every year since 1977. It is divisive — a swift return to the culture wars from a party that promised to focus like a laser on job creation and the economy. It intrudes on the private insurance market to make it unlikely that any health care plan would cover abortion procedures.

And it reveals archaic attitudes about women’s health and equality.

Under the original bill, filed by Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey with 172 Republican cosponsors, only pregnancies resulting from “forcible rape’’ would be grounds for an exception to the funding ban. Incest would be considered only if the victim was under age 18. This would have sent women back to the bad old days, where a broken jaw or other obvious injury was required to “prove’’ a rape. The reality is that most rapes are not committed by total strangers, and drugs, alcohol, and power relationships are the weapons of choice.

“I think a victim-blaming culture is still alive and well,’’ said Ilene Seidman, a professor at Suffolk Law School and board member of the Victims Rights Law Center in Boston, “and this is a perfect example.’’

In the early 1980s, Massachusetts was a pioneer in passing so-called “rape staircase’’ laws, which established different levels of the crime, including statutory rape of a minor, “date rape,’’ and verbal threats or other forms of coercion short of a weapon or physical violence. Prosecutors and victims’ advocates believe that the graduated sentences made it more likely juries would convict. It was a major advance in combating sexual assault crimes.

House Republicans were either unaware of these realities or uncaring. But on Thursday, after Jon Stewart had mocked the bill, Smith’s legislative team said they would remove the offending language.

All is hardly resolved, however. A companion bill, sponsored by Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, also dropped its restrictive rape and incest provisions, but a new, equally upsetting clause was added. This would allow exemptions from the federal law requiring hospitals to perform emergency surgery — if the surgery is an abortion. So if a pregnant woman is hemorrhaging or has another life-threatening condition and needs an emergency abortion, hospitals could simply refuse.

“The fact that they would put in such a totally unacceptable provision and then swap it out for something that puts women’s lives in danger shows that they think very little of women,’’ said Donna Crane, policy director for the abortion-rights group NARAL, in Washington. “They think our lives are worth jeopardizing for their politics.’’

Federal bans on funding for abortion have been in place since the Hyde amendment took effect in 1977. Under its provisions, poor women cannot get abortions funded through the federal portion of Medicaid, and federal employees, including women serving in the military and the Peace Corps, cannot obtain abortions through their government health plans. Both the Smith and Pitts bills would make the Hyde amendment a federal statute; currently, it must be reauthorized every year.

More recently, abortion opponents have been trying to expand “federal funding’’ to include any of the subsidies or tax breaks offered to Americans who buy health insurance. The Smith bill effectively bars any private insurance plan that covers abortion procedures from participating in the so-called exchanges set up under the new health care law. And it would not allow anyone whose insurance plan covers abortion — including the self-employed, small businesses, or even men — to claim tax deductions or credits for their premium payments. These are obvious disincentives to insurance companies offering abortion services.

A few of these end-runs around the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion were tried — and failed — during congressional debate on the health care bill last year. But the provision taking aim at life-saving emergency care is a new low. In their zeal, these House Republicans are willing to burden desperate, traumatized women with new hurdles to prove themselves worthy of legal medical care.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.