Did bill try to redefine rape? GOP backs down after public outcry.

A GOP-backed House bill aimed at limiting federal funding of abortions used the phrase 'forcible rape,' suggesting that abortions for other kinds of rape would not be covered. Critics called it an attempt to redefine rape, and the GOP relented. But the bill is still controversial.

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    Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey speaks on abortion and the health-care reform bill on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 21, 2010. Congressman Smith is the lead sponsor of H.R. 3, the 'No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act' that until Thursday attempted to limit the rape exception for abortions to 'forcible rape.'
    Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Newscom / File
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Abortion-rights advocates are applauding the House GOP’s retreat on its use of a loaded phrase – “forcible rape” – in legislation aimed at expanding restrictions on federal funding of abortions. But there are many battles to go as the newly empowered Republicans push hard on this incendiary issue.

The latest skirmish centered on the insertion of language in H.R. 3 – the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” – that essentially narrowed the definition of rape to “forcible rape” as a legitimate exemption. Since 1977, federal law has allowed the use of government funds for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the woman.

The term “forcible rape” was never explicitly defined, but pro-abortion-rights forces presumed the bill would preclude federal funding for abortions of pregnancies resulting from a variety of rapes where force may not be involved, including date rape, statutory rape, the rape of a woman who had been drugged, and the rape of a mentally incompetent woman. The bill also restricts abortions in cases of incest to females who are minors.

After an uproar from progressive groups, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, lead sponsor of the bill, said in emails to reporters that the term “forcible” would be replaced with the original language of the Hyde Amendment, which references simply “rape,” without qualifiers.

But abortion-rights groups aren’t jumping for joy.

“I would caution against saying this is a victory, because the other provisions in H.R. 3 are so bad,” says Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In addition to banning federal funding for abortion, the bill would eliminate tax breaks for health insurance premiums on policies that cover abortion-related expenses. It would also prevent women from paying for an abortion out of a health savings account.

A separate piece of legislation, H.R. 358 – the Protect Life Act, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania – also seeks to bar use of federal funds for abortion under the new health-care law but is less far-reaching than Congressman Smith’s bill. Still, abortion-rights advocates are equally concerned about its provisions. On Wednesday, NARAL Pro-Choice America highlighted a new version of Congressman Pitts’ bill that they said would allow hospitals to refuse to provide an abortion to a pregnant woman even if her life was in danger.

In the last Congress, Pitts and former Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan succeeded in inserting a ban on federal funding for abortion in the House version of health reform legislation, but it was not included in the final version signed by President Obama. The day after the bill-signing, Mr. Obama signed an executive order aimed at ensuring the new law would maintain a ban on federal funding of abortions.

But there is no chance Obama would sign either the Smith bill or the Pitts bill. Still, abortion-rights foes are trying to portray Obama as a hypocrite on the issue of federal subsidies for abortions.

“If President Obama seeks to obstruct these bills, that will provide additional glaring evidence that his professions of opposition to public funding of abortion are phony,” Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said last month.

The early attention to abortion in the new Congress has created the appearance that the newly empowered Republicans are checking off an important box on the social conservative agenda.

“The box that they promised America they’d check off is jobs,” says Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, a pro-abortion rights group. “Instead, I see an effort to restrict access to health-care services.”

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