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'Legitimate rape,' 'forcible rape,' 'honest rape': What's behind the GOP's obsession with parsing rape?

Rep. Todd Akin has now made three separate radio appearances and cut a 30-second ad to apologize for his comments about rape. And yet, he still appears determined to hold onto that distinction between "legitimate rape" and other types of rape that helped get him in so much trouble in the first place. And among social conservatives, he’s far from alone.

Asked Monday by Mike Huckabee whether by “legitimate rape” he might have meant “forcible rape,” Akin grasped the lifeline with both hands. “I was talking about forcible rape,” he said. “I used the wrong word.” In other words, Akin still wants to distinguish between a violent rape and, say, a drunken date rape. And Huckabee seemed eager to support that distinction.

It’s not just them. Rep. Ron Paul recently used an equally peculiar phrase to get at the same idea. If Paul’s daughter or grand-daughter were raped, CNN’s Piers Morgan asked him in February, would he force her to have the child? “No, if it’s an honest rape, that individual should go immediately to the emergency room,” the Texas lawmaker replied (itals ours).

So: “Legitimate rape,” “forcible rape,” “honest rape”—what’s going on here?  What’s with this strange GOP obsession with  parsing different categories of rape, and implying that some count more than others?

It all goes back to abortion, of course and the relentless conservative drive in recent years to limit exceptions to abortion restrictions—in this case by flat-out redefining rape.

Since the 1976 Hyde Amendment, restrictions on the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions have included exceptions for women who got pregnant via rape or incest. But last year, a Republican bill—co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan and called a top priority by Speaker John Boehner—aimed to narrow the rape exception to “forcible rape.” As Mother Jones explained at the time:

This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion.

Anti-abortion groups left little doubt about their position, arguing that the law had never been interpreted to count statutory rape as rape. “We do not believe that the Hyde Amendment has ever been construed to permit federal funding of abortion based merely on the youth of the mother (“statutory rape”),” Douglas Johnson, of the National Right to Life Committee told

In other words, statutory rape shouldn't count as real rape. The new “forcible rape” language was only needed, Johnson said, to prevent pro-choice groups from trying to widen the definition of rape so that it would now apply to statutory rape.

But it’s not only about statutory rape. In that February CNN interview, Paul went on to say that though victims of “honest rape” should have access to emergency contraceptive services, "if you talk about somebody coming in and they say, 'Well, I was raped and I'm seven months pregnant and I don't want to have anything to do with it,' it's a little bit different story."

In other words, distinguishing between “honest rape” and other types of rape is necessary because women lie about rape. So only those who immediately report the crime should be allowed to terminate their pregnancies. In reality, of course, experts say it’s extremely common for women not to immediately report a rape, out of a combination of factors including trauma, shame, and fear of one’s attacker.  

In fact, if the Republican Party had its way, the forcible rape debate would be moot, because there just wouldn't be any exceptions to abortion restrictions. In the run-up to its Tampa convention, the party this week passed a “Human Life Amendment”—just as it did in 2004 and 2008—which opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest.