Restricting abortion access: no laughing matter

Score another political victory for crusading nonjournalist Jon Stewart.

The satirist and host of "The Daily Show," who shamed Congress into approving medical benefits for those who were the first responders on Sept. 11, has again used his piercing ridicule to drive back lawmakers who wanted to redefine rape with the redundant adjective "forcible."

New Jersey Republican Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the House pro-life caucus, introduced a bill late last month called the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." It was designed to make permanent the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in the case of rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother.

But Mr. Smith's bill took some liberties with the language in the Hyde Amendment.

Rape must be "forcible" — and statutory rape had disappeared. Incest was suddenly redefined as "with a minor." And the mother must be in danger of death from the pregnancy, not merely at risk of serious health consequences.

But following a skit on "The Daily Show," the language in Mr. Smith's bill quickly and without explanation reverted to the original.

Maybe it was the editorial in The New York Times. Maybe it was pressure from women's groups. Maybe the phrase "forcible rape" made even pro-life politicians wince.

But I prefer to believe it was "Daily Show" women's affairs correspondent Kristen Schaal telling Mr. Stewart on Wednesday night that a huge rape loophole had finally been closed.

"You'd be surprised how many drugged, underage or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system. Sorry, ladies, the free abortion ride is over," she declared, deadpan.

"Pressed" by Mr. Stewart, she described various sexual assault scenarios as "rape-esque," "rape-ish," and a kind of "rape-mare," distinguishing them from official rape. Date rape? That, she said, was "rape with benefits."

Now there would be an end, she said, to "money rape. The forcible taking of taxpayer money to pay for abortion."

(For the record, in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, 191 abortions were performed with federal funds as a result of rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother. Ms. Schaal calculated that they cost each taxpayer "two-tenths of a penny.")

But Adam Sonfield, a senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, isn't smiling. And he isn't fooled. He considers the use of the word "forcible" a red herring, designed to keep everybody from noticing that HB 3 contains even more restrictions on the availability of funds — insurance, personal or federal — for abortion.

"They are trying to distract people from the real issues. It is a horrible bill, with or without the word 'forcible,'" said Mr. Sonfield.

Not only would the bill make permanent all the provisions that prevent economically vulnerable women from getting the health care they need, but it would make it more difficult for even middle-class women to use, for example, health spending account money or health care tax deductions to pay for abortion or for the premiums for policies that cover abortion.

Likewise, small businesses would not be able to offer insurance that pays for abortion if they take federal tax credits.

"They will find whatever lever they can to interfere with private insurance coverage using private dollars and to force private insurance companies to drop abortion coverage. Which is their goal," said Mr. Sonfield.

And that is no laughing matter.

Note: In last week's column, I erred in referring to the cancer that the HPV vaccination was designed to prevent. It is designed to protect against cervical cancer.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is

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