Last week, newly elected House Speaker John Boehner held a press conference along with right-wing New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith to discuss a bill that Boehner described as one of his “highest legislative priorities.”
Our nation, knee deep in the longest period of high unemployment since the Great Depression, fresh off the heels of the first assassination attempt ever made on an American female politician, and blurry-eyed from watching unprecedented footage of widespread protests throughout crucial regions in the middle east and north Africa, leaned forward and sat on the edge of our collective seats. “This should be good,” we thought.
But Boehner’s bill didn’t address our most pressing, urgent, or even popular concerns.
Rather, at this vital time in U.S. history, Boehner and his cohort of petty opportunists are using their newly gained legislative power to rack up points with their far-right base by — get this — picking on rape victims.
WATCH RACHEL MADDOW’S COVERAGE OF GOP ‘PRIORITIES’:
As unbelievable as it sounds, the bill Boehner was referring to was “The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”, or H.R.3, and it contains provisions that would narrow the federal government’s definition of rape so that only victims of “forcible rape” would qualify for federally funded abortions.
As Sady Doyle, feminist blogger and activist, explains, this means that if a woman becomes pregnant due to a date rape, is a victim of statutory rape, or is raped when mentally incapacitated (or intoxicated), she would no longer be eligible to obtain an abortion while on Medicaid, Medicare, or any other government funded health care plan.
If enacted, the bill threatens to deny due health care to untold numbers of rape victims, with poor women and minorities disproportionally affected.
“The problem with such a standard is that it sets a barrier with an almost impossible threshold to achieve,” says Dr. Willie J Parker, MD, MPH, MSc, an AA physician and abortion provider in Washington DC. “Rape as a legal definition requires the rape to be reported, which as you know, occurs less than half the time. When you add the additional criteria of evidence of ‘force’, the standard appears to be intentionally unrealizable.”
“The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” isn’t the first law that denies due justice to victims of sexual assault and codifies misogyny, racism, and victim blaming into American law; in fact, America has a history of failing to adequately protect women, and especially women of color, against violence and sexual assault. After all, it used to be that a black woman in American could never be legally raped, no matter how “forcibly” she was treated, because she was a slave and therefore considered nothing more than property. Sexual assault then was legally classified as a form of trespassing — entering unlawfully on someone else’s “property”.
Even beyond the institution of slavery, this country has a history of failing to protect women of color from obtaining justice by their assailants. Throughout the 20th century, cases of black women who experienced violence, sexual or otherwise, at the hands of white men have been ignored or insufficiently pursued. And in the present day, an estimated 180,000 rape kits completed each year loiter on shelves and in warehouses amidst massive backlog.
In this light, I suppose we could view John Boehner’s bill as a continuation of a deeply engrained American tradition, albeit one of which no American should be proud.
Of course, all women who suffer from sexual assault and violence deserve better protection under the law. But inadequate rape laws disproportionately affect women of color. According to study by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, “black women confront a “multiple jeopardy” of color, class and gender bias that makes their cases difficult to prosecute and to exact a guilty verdict from a jury…the legal system continues to tell the black woman that in cases where a white man was accused of sexually assaulting her, it was “never against her will.”
Kathy Ferguson, a founding member of the Maryland Women of Color Network, calls this phenomenon the result, at least in part, of a “culture of silence” among women of color. “It’s not only because of the fear and the embarrassment and shame that you find among all races. Black women historically have had to carry the burden of the community. You don’t necessarily want to report because you don’t want the community viewed negatively.”
Dr. Parker also notes the ways in which the provision in Boehner’s bill specifically would affect black women. “The impact on black women intensified because of their restricted access to abortion care that is already in place…Consider the fact that women of color are disproportionately reliant on public funding for their care [because of the Hyde Amendment]. This is the Hyde Amendment on steroids. It is a classic case of poorly crafted policy, where the mechanism of government gets hijacked for narrow interests.”
Sady Doyle, who has created a #DearJohn hashtag on Twitter to protest Rep. Boehner’s bill, adds that the bill “makes abortion most impossible for low-income people” and “is economically discriminatory and racist”. “It preserves and strengthens a hierarchy of access to medical care that benefits only the most privileged people in America.”
With estimates showing that less than seven percent of black women who are sexually assaulted report the crime to the police, and many women citing already insurmountable barriers both to reporting an assault and accessing counseling services, we can’t afford to let John Boehner define rape for American women.
His bill might not be the first to threaten justice for women, and especially women of color, but we have the power to make it the last. I encourage you to call or write to Representative Boehner and let him know how you feel about this bill, or use the #DearJohn hashtag on Twitter to voice your thoughts publicly.