(AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

GOP wants to define rape... again: How Lindsey Graham reawakened the ghost of Todd Akin

Lindsey Graham asks pro-lifers to solve the “definitional problem of rape.” He thinks that'll help. Bless his heart


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Joan Walsh
January 22, 2015 11:31PM (UTC)

Ah, Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina senator who says he’s thinking about running for president no doubt thought he was helping the GOP get beyond its meltdown over its 20-week abortion ban bill, which leadership dropped unexpectedly when some GOP congresswomen balked, by asking antiabortion zealots attending the “March for Life” to help him “find a way out of this definitional problem with rape.”

One major issue with the bill was the way it defined rape: a women would have to have made a police report in order to get an abortion under the bill’s rape exception. (Katie McDonough has the details here.) Most rape victims don’t report the crime.

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So Graham went to the "March for Life" today and came clean with the group, which is seething over its betrayal by GOP leadership. There's going to be some kind of rape exception in the bill, and he needs their input to shape it.

"I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape," Graham told the marchers, according to Dave Weigel.  "We need to find a consensus position on the rape exception. The rape exception will be part of the bill. We just need to find a way definitionally to not get us into a spot where we're debating what legitimate is. That's not the cause. We're not here debating legitimate rape. We're talking about saving babies at 20 weeks."

So there it is again, the GOP’s lust for getting into the gritty details of defining rape, to make sure slutty women aren’t using rape exceptions to get around various types of abortion bans. That’s what former Rep. Todd Akin was getting at in 2012, when he talked about women rarely becoming pregnant as a result of “legitimate rape,” because  “a woman’s body has a way of shutting that whole thing down.” As you’ll recall, instead, women shut the GOP down that November. Republicans don’t want that to happen again in 2016.

The funny thing is, clearly Graham thinks he’s smarter than Akin: he insists he doesn’t “want to get us into a spot where we’re debating what legitimate is.” But he doesn’t seem to understand that the whole effort to “define” rape, which he’s apparently now spearheading, is precisely about deciding whether a woman’s claim of rape is “legitimate” or not.

At its heart, this Republican project is predicated on the belief that women lie about rape, but Republicans can outsmart them. If some Republican women believe that requiring women to make a police report is draconian, then Graham is searching for another way to define a woman’s rape as legitimately deserving of an exception to their 20-week abortion ban.

Rep. Renee Ellmers, who supported the very same bill in 2013, had second thoughts this time around. “We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we’re moving forward,” Ellmers told National Journal. ”The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn’t be on an issue where we know that millennials — social issues just aren’t as important [to them].”

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So Ellmers is not exactly the picture of integrity here. She’s not worried about passing a terrible bill that could hurt women; she’s worried about how it looks to millennial voters.

Still, there looks to be a real split between GOP congressional men and women over the issue. Only women came forward to take their names off the bill; then male leadership acquiesced to withdraw it from consideration. Reportedly the party had the votes to pass the bill in the House at least, but Speaker John Boehner and others were concerned about the “optics” of ignoring women in the caucus.

I guess that’s a kind of progress for women’s rights, albeit tiny. But in walks Lindsey Graham to try to mansplain the right way to handle this whole rape "definition," and even as he thinks he’s helping, he’s making his party’s problems much worse.

I never thought Graham had a prayer of winning the presidency, or even the GOP nomination, but his chances just got a lot worse. Republicans did well in 2014 by avoiding Akin-like controversies over defining rape and holding forth on the intimate workings of women's bodies generally. It seems they just can't help themselves, and that's good for Democrats generally in 2016.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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