Jonathan Weisman and Michael Shear of the New York Times report today that Paul Ryan "co-sponsored a bill with Mr. Akin that aimed to restrict the definition of rape."
This claim, which has been pushed by the Democratic National Committee and has popped up in numerous mainstream publications, is false. It doesn't seem like this story is going to die anytime soon, so let's take a close look at the many reasons it is untrue.
First, the New York Times and many other news outlets fail to provide very basic context about the bill Ryan cosponsored. Writing that Ryan cosponsored a bill that "aimed to restrict the definition of rape" leaves readers with the impression that Ryan cosponsored a bill primarily aimed at changing the definition of rape. Did the bill try to reduce the punishment for rapists? Did it exclude "date-rape" from the definition of rape? The Times leaves readers wondering.
In fact, the bill had nothing to do with altering the criminal code. It dealt only with the issue of prohibiting the use of federal tax dollars to pay for abortions. From 1981 to 1993, the Hyde amendment only allowed federal funding of abortions for Medicaid recipients when the mother's life was endangered. In 1993, the Hyde amendment was modified to allow federal tax dollars to pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients whose pregnancies were the result of rape or incest. (If you want a detailed history of Hyde amendment exceptions, read this 2008 HHS report.)
Now that we've placed the issue in proper context, let's move on to the claim that the bill Ryan cosponsored changed the definition of rape vis-a-vis federal funding of abortion.
In January of 2011, the No Taxpayer-Funding for Abortion Act was introduced in the House of Representatives as a catch-all measure to prohibit federal funding of abortions with a few exceptions. On January 28, 2011, Nick Baumann of Mother Jones was the first to report that the phrase "forcible rape" would cause a drastic change in law. "Drugged, raped, and pregnant? Too bad," read the sub-headline of Baumann's story. "Republicans are pushing to limit rape and incest cases eligible for government abortion funding."
Baumann wrote that the “types of rapes that would no longer be covered by the exemption include rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes.”
These claims were blatantly untrue. The Department of Justice and FBI have a well-established definition of "forcible rape" that covers the "types of rapes" to which Baumann refers. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook explicitly states that the use of "date-rape" drugs fall under the definition of "forcible rape" (emphasis added):
The following scenarios illustrate incidents known to law enforcement that reporting agencies must classify as Attempts to Commit Forcible Rape (2b):
4. A man attacked a woman on the street, knocked her down, and attempted to rape her. A pedestrian frightened the man away before he could complete the attack.
5. At a local bar, a man slipped gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a date rape drug, into a woman’s drink. However, the man was unable to lure the woman away from her friends. Investigators concluded that the man intended to have intercourse with the woman and arrested him.
The original intent of using the word "forcible" in this bill was to prohibit taxpayer-funding of abortion in cases of statutory rape without force--i.e. when a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old have consensual sex. The law already makes a clear distinction between forcible rape and statutory rape, so it is inaccurate to say that the bill would "restrict" or "redefine" the definition of rape. Supporters of the bill, such as the National Right to Life Committee and Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski (who was an original cosponsor), have said that the longstanding interpretation of the Hyde amendment had always excluded "statutory rape." They were simply trying to codify this interpretation, not change the amendment.
"The language of H.R. 3 was not intended to change existing law regarding taxpayer funding for abortion in cases of rape, nor is it expected that it would do so," Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski of Illinois said in a statement to Talking Points Memo on January 29. "Nonetheless, the legislative process will provide an opportunity to clarify this should such a need exist."
One fact that bolsters the claim that the Hyde amendment excluded statutory rape (without force) is that Medicaid pays for a very small number of abortions. In 2001, "the total number of abortions covered by Medicaid was 56," reported Amy Sullivan of Time magazine. "That's all abortions for cases in which the mother's life was in danger, the pregnancy was a result of incest, or in the case of rape." If the Hyde amendment's definition of "rape" included consensual sex between a legal adult and a minor, it would seem reasonable to expect the number would be higher.
That may not be the strongest evidence, but it's better than no evidence. And not a single news organization has provided any evidence that the federal government has paid for Medicaid abortions in the case of statutory rape since 1993. In other words, the New York Times and other mainstream outlets have run with the "redefine rape" story without proof that the word "forcible" would have changed the definition of rape, for purposes of federal abortion-funding, in the slightest.
The whole debate over whether the word "forcible" would have altered the Hyde amendment became moot on February 3, 2011, when the word was dropped from the bill. That's right--it took less than a week from the January 28, 2011 Mother Jones story for Congress to change the bill. The Associated Press notes that the language was "eventually changed"--as if pro-lifers fought tooth-and-nail to get the word "forcible" in the bill. In fact they dropped it in less than a week after it became apparent that the word was redundant and simply gave pro-choice Democrats the opportunity to smear pro-lifers. Has there ever been so much furor over one word in a bill that was never voted on?
The Times is not alone in credulously reporting the "redefine rape" story. If you plug in the words “Paul Ryan” and “forcible rape” into Nexis, you will find over 300 stories since Saturday. “Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, cosponsored legislation with Akin that unsuccessfully sought to redefine 'forcible rape' in the federal code,” according to a report at National Journal by Major Garrett. Even ABC's Jake Tapper, who is usually the most even-handed prominent mainstream journalist, reported on Good Morning America: "Specifically, there was some legislation dealing with abortion that dealt with not, quote/unquote, 'legitimate rape,' as Congressman Akin described, but, quote/unquote, 'forcible rape.' And Congressman Paul Ryan was one of the 227 co-sponsors of that legislation, so they'll try to tie him."
It's fine for the media to report on the attacks that Democrats or Republicans plan to launch against their opponents, but it is also the job of journalists to explain that attacks are untrue if they are untrue.
The basic facts of the "redefine rape" story are as follows: Ryan cosponsored a bill to ban federal-funding of abortions, except in the case of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother was endangered. For about six days, there was a debate about whether or not the bill would have inadvertently changed the law regarding taxpayer-funding of abortion in the case of statutory rape. We still don't know for sure whether the federal government funds abortion in the case of statutory rape. The original version of the bill was quickly changed to mirror the precise language of the Hyde amendment. The No Taxpayer-Funding for Abortion Act, which had 11 Democratic cosponsors, passed the House with 251 votes.
That might not make for a gripping story. But it's the truth.