Rick Perry, the governor of my state, is really upset about how big government has gotten. Evidently it's not big enough, however, because 'ole Ricky seems to think its small enough to crawl up my vagina with a sonogram machine and a recorder so that Ricky can tell me how to think based on what God whispers in his ear.~ HELEN PHILPOTIn politics, it is axiomatic that if you let the fringe define you then you risk becoming the fringe and hurting your overall cause. The gains in the mid-term elections notwithstanding, the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party, including the deep inroads made by Tea Party candidates, is as pungent an example as I've seen of this since forever.
This axiom has been strutting its stuff in the current congressional session because of Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, who even by pro-life terms is extreme, and his leadership role on legislation that could accurately be called The Defense of Rape Law.
The bill would make permanent the 35-year-old Hyde Amendment, which prohibits health-care programs like Medicaid from covering abortions except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother's life. It also would prohibit employers and self-insured Americans from using tax breaks to buy private health insurance that covers abortion.
Where H.R. 3 goes -- or rather went -- completely off the rails was in exempting abortions involving pregnancies by redefining what constitutes forcible rape, and allowing an exemption to the law only in the case of incest involving minors. Women who are forced to having sex against their wishes were screwed. Women who were drugged before sex were screwed. Women whose health was in danger were screwed. Women who were mentally retarded were screwed.
(Not dissimilar initiatives are making their way through legislatures in Texas, Ohio and South Dakota, among other states, and the South Dakota law would consider murdering an abortion provider as justifiable homicide. One pundit refers to this beauty as The George Tiller Had It Coming Justifiable Homicide Act, which dovetails nicely with another South Dakota law-in-the-making that would require residents to purchase firearms. UPDATE: The bill has been tabled.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to passage of The Defense of Rape Law.
Republican bigs and Republican women's groups like the conservative Susan B. Anthony List remained largely silent on the firestorm that the bill ignited. They realized that codifying the right-wing belief that some rapes are less important than others because, you know, some women ask for it, would not be embraced by many if most women, and the GOP already has a huge problem in attracting woman voters for whom Phyllis Schlafly is not a goddess. Besides which, at this juncture the GOP's 2012 president field is weak, and a nominee doesn't need the additional burden of The Defense of Rape Law albatross around his neck.
And so Smith, while not publicly fessing up to reality, quietly dropped the language redefining rape.
To return to the Tea Partiers, there also is an element of hypocrisy. One of the party's chief plaints is the intrusiveness of big government, yet under The Defense of Rape Law government would decide whether women had really been raped or not.Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images