How to Stop the Right's Campaign Against Rape Victims

Women's groups can gain ground only if we change the terms of the debate. We need to make compassion for victims the issue, not some abstract debate about whether rape is real.
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The Republican leadership is at it again. House Republicans rode into office on claims that President Obama and the Democratic Congress were promoting a "liberal" agenda rather than focusing on the real task at hand -- job creation. Yet the first act of the new Republican House was a symbolic repeal of health care followed by a focus on the true conservative passion: regulating the sex lives of the most vulnerable and politically powerless women. The latest proposal, which would limit benefits for rape victims unless they could show that the rape was "forcible," reintroduces a distinction that women fought for decades to eliminate -- the notion that "real rape" can only occur when a stranger jumps out of the bushes and holds a woman at gunpoint. Otherwise, the woman must necessarily be complicit in the resulting pregnancy and should be forced to bear the child.

Anyone who seriously cares about women's lives will oppose the measure. Merely trying to defeat it, however, is not enough. It continues the practice of letting the far right define the reproductive debate while those who champion reproductive justice play defense. It is time to turn the tables and propose practical changes that would actually cut public expenditures, protect rape victims and make the anti-women animus that motivates these proposals visible for all to see.

Wisconsin offers an inspiring example. It joined sixteen other states and the District of Columbia in signing a "Compassionate Care for Rape Victims" act into law in 2008. (For other states, see here.) The law, passed with significant support from pro-life legislators, requires that emergency rooms provide rape victims with information about and access to emergency contraception. The contraception, better known as "the morning after pill," involves administering a high dose of progestin, the active ingredient in the birth control pill. The hormone prevents or delays ovulation but cannot dislodge an existing pregnancy. The treatment is relatively inexpensive, effective up to 72 hours after intercourse, and part of the ordinary standard of care for emergency room treatment. Yet a 2006 study indicated that 66% of Wisconsin emergency rooms failed to mention it to patients seeking assistance after a rape.

It took an impressive coalition of legislators, rape victims, and reproductive justice advocates to pass the bill. The victims testified movingly -- and courageously -- about their experiences. Doctrinaire conservatives, not unlike the Congressional Republicans urging the current restrictions, used intemperate language that referred to the "alleged" victims and questioned whether the rapes were "real." Their callousness in the face of women testifying to terrifying experiences exposed the extremism of the opposition, which objects not just to abortion, but to contraception. The heartlessness embarrassed and split pro-life ranks and led to the passage of a measure that provided a real service to rape victims and reduced both abortions and government spending. Most importantly, it spared already traumatized women an unnecessary pregnancy or later abortion.

Women's groups can gain ground only if we change the terms of the debate. We need to make compassion for victims the issue, not some abstract debate about whether rape is real. The only way to do so is to find a way to get what should be consensus proposals a hearing -- proposals that take the trauma of rape seriously, make the real problem visible, offer workable solutions and expose the pro-life posturing in Congress for what it is: an ideological crusade that succeeds only so long as true victims remain invisible.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

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