Sometimes, I actually have some good news from the world of the fight for reproductive rights, but this story starts with some very, very bad news. So hang in there, I promise it gets better at the end! Sort of.
Yesterday, Reproductive Health Reality Check broke a story on some horrific proposed policy changes in New Mexico that would have made it harder for women to access childcare assistance. One key change required women to demonstrate “forcible rape” to prove that receiving child support was not an option before the state would pay for child care. Requiring women to prove that they met this utterly bizarre and medieval means test to get assistance is pretty much bottom of the barrel. And it occurred within the context of larger signaling on the part of the Martinez administration indicating that New Mexico’s Latina governor is very much not on board with reproductive rights.
In fact, she’s part of the anti-choice movement in the United States that is pushing for narrower and narrower definitions of rape to restrict women’s access to health care choices. In the process, of course, that causes direct emotional harm as well; “forcible rape” excludes a host of sexual violations which, despite conservative beliefs, really are rape. And, oddly enough, being told that what you experienced wasn’t “really” rape tends to have a detrimental impact on victims and survivors. There’s a reason why even the Federal Bureau of Investigation has overhauled its definition of rape in order to more adequately provide justice to victims of all genders.
In New Mexico, women can apply for childcare assistance if they need help paying for childcare so they can work or go to school. To qualify for aid, they need to meet an income means test, and another change requires them to show that they have attempted to obtain child support from the father. The “forcible rape” means test was added as an exception to the child support requirement, presumably as an act of charity. If you were, uh, legitimately raped, then by golly, the state would forgive you for not applying for child support and would magnanimously provide childcare assistance.
In addition to just being gross on its face, the clause came with some deeply troubling implications. Every time things like this are enshrined in policy, they create precedents, and this, in turn, makes it easy to continue to pass regressive laws. New Mexico’s forcible rape clause could be used as a model for other states that want to restrict government assistance to women and humiliate them at the same time, and legal advocates would have had a long, hard battle to overturn the clause and restore benefits to women who needed them.
Horrific, right? And that’s where the good part of this story comes in, because advocates quickly rallied and took action on the issue to defend access to childcare assistance in New Mexico. They hit the issue from all sides, holding press conferences, contacting the governor’s office directly, and alerting the media to get them to take action.
And their efforts were successful; later in the afternoon, the clause was removed. The claim is that the governor found the phrasing “redundant,” but clearly she was aware of the tremendous pressure she was under and that, in turn, gave way to a change. This is curious, considering that the phrase has popped up in other government documents and declarations, suggesting it’s actually a consistent part of policy, not a casual slip.
But don’t rest just yet, because this is just “provisional.”
In a phone call, Enrique Knell, spokesman for CYFD, told me that the terms was "provisionally removed." When I asked what that meant, he said that it was provisional because a public hearing was to be held in Sante Fe on October 1. Knell could not respond immediately to questions about the public comment period, nor the process of developing final guidelines. He promised to get back to me with that information.
This is an issue that needs to be kept in the news until the formal public hearing, in order to ensure that the language doesn’t “mysteriously” make its way back into the final text. Especially since the governor’s office is already setting the stage for that by suggesting that since other states have similar clauses in their childcare assistance guidelines, surely it’s reasonable.
And there’s still another issue with the guidelines that needs to be addressed: The mandate to file for child support before requesting assistance with childcare, which is retained in the guidelines as they stand now. While there are exceptions beyond the rape clause structured into the language, such as in cases where there is a risk of “physical or emotional harm,” it’s not clear how these exceptions would be handled, how long applicants would have to wait for assistance, and what the standards for verifying them would be, exactly.
That’s bad news for low-income women, who need childcare assistance now, not after weeks or months of red tape designed to make it as hard as possible to access help. Advocates are still organizing around the 1 October hearing in the hopes of making other substantial changes to the language in order to ensure the best outcome for women, and they still need support. While the “forcible rape” language may have been temporarily tabled, the battle is far from over.
This is all part of the war on women; restricting access to childcare limits opportunities and is yet another reminder of the role many conservatives seem to think women should occupy, as homemakers in single-income marriages. Single mothers are highly stigmatized in our society, and this is one of the many ways they're reminded of that.