Choice Rankings

In the public conversation about rape, the loudest voices tend to be those describing what it isn't. It's not rape if she was drunk. It's not rape if they were on a date. It's not rape if she was wearing a short skirt. It's not rape if the accused is her husband or someone she previously called a friend. In its latest iteration, it's not rape if she isn't sufficiently bruised from fighting back.

This extremely narrow definition nearly became law. After a concerted digital effort by pro-choice activists -- and some ribbing from The Daily Show -- the GOP announced Thursday it would strip the term "forcible rape" from HR3, the so-called No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. The purpose of the bill is to prevent taxpayer subsidies from funding health-care plans that offer abortion, and while it will now make exceptions for "rape, incest, and the life of the mother," it still codifies the Hyde Amendment, which has denied abortion access to poor women almost as long as Roe has granted the right to everyone else.

To hear Digby tell it, the fact that we're all talking about the definition of rape means we've been fooled. "The conservatives understand the art of negotiation," she wrote on Wednesday, "and I think they have put this provision in there for the express purpose of creating a firestorm, drawing the attention of the pro-choice groups and then 'reluctantly' giving it up in exchange for the Democrats giving in on all the other, less sexy, changes they really want. Changes which will restrict abortion for far more people throughout the country than this rape redefinition ever would."

I agree with Digby that the rape language was far from the only problem with this bill, but I disagree that this attempt to change the definition of rape is merely a distraction. Rape -- and its definition -- have long played a role in society's judgment of what is an "acceptable" abortion. Thanks, in part, to the Hyde Amendment, we already have a hierarchy of legal abortion -- one that goes beyond the gestational restrictions set by the Roe v. Wade decision and limits abortions based on much more arbitrary and moralistic criteria. Sure, those of us who are pro-choice are happy when draconian anti-abortion laws make exceptions for women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, but that doesn't change our underlying opposition to restrictions on this right. All women should be able to choose abortion, for any reason, under any circumstances, within the boundaries set by Roe.

In the effort to stop HR3, there's been a lot of discussion of how, though we may be tempted to divide rape into a million categories based on circumstances, the common thread is a lack of choice. There are not "worse" or "better" rapes, and decades of feminist activism have gotten the law to reflect this fact. (In the realm of popular culture, I'd argue, that battle is still being fought.) There was such a huge outcry about the "forcible rape" language because accepting the notion that there are "degrees" of rape has the effect of diminishing the idea that it's a crime, period.

It's also tempting -- even for people who are nominally pro-choice -- to divide legal abortion into a million categories based on circumstances. I'm not talking about abortion at various stages of pregnancy. I'm talking about how we decide which Roe-sanctioned abortions we support and which we don't. A few weeks ago, a pro-choice friend of mine was appalled to learn that an acquaintance had gotten three abortions in one year. He questioned whether the woman was "using abortion as birth control." My answer? I don't know the circumstances, I don't pretend to know them, and frankly, I don't care. I support her choice. All three of them. Once you start passing judgment in such specific incidences, the slope gets pretty slippery.

There is a long-running debate among pro-choice activists about whether it's a savvy political move to highlight the most sympathetic cases. The truth of the matter is that we are more likely to describe the plight of the couple who really wanted a child but for medical reasons chose to have a second-trimester abortion than we are to talk about the 14-year-old who was simply unable to come to terms with the fact that she was pregnant until she was well out of the first trimester and needed a similar procedure. We make an example of our friend who needed an abortion after she was raped but not of our friend who needed an abortion because she was drunk and didn't make her partner wear a condom. We might bring up the fact that low-income women have a hard time paying for abortions, but how often do we come right out and say that the solution is taxpayer funding?

I get that abortion is one of the most politicized personal choices in America. There are good reasons for the rhetorical tactics most often used to defend women's right to make those choices. But there are also consequences. With the deletion of the "forcible rape" language from HR3, we've dealt a blow to the notion that some rapes are more acceptable than others. Now it's time to turn our efforts toward disproving the notion that some women's abortions are less acceptable than others.

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