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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McCain, Palin and Rape Kits

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the pervasive rumor that Sarah Palin, when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, made women pay for their own forensic testing when reporting a rape. The verdict: This policy was enforced for at least some reported rapes in Wasilla, and in 2000, complaints about rape kit charges in Wasilla and other rural areas drove then-Gov. Tony Knowles to pass legislation requiring police departments to pay for the testing. The Wasilla police chief opposed the new state law and defended the practice, saying that it avoided burdening taxpayers with the cost of testing. As for Palin’s role in the whole thing, it was unclear whether she ever supported the practice.

What was clear, we thought, was McCain’s role: We can confidently report that he was nowhere near Wasilla at the time. But a new ad from Planned Parenthood, running in three cities (St. Louis; Madison, Wisc.; and Washington, D.C.), not only expressly implicates Palin in charging women for their own rape kits — it attempts to link McCain to the practice as well.

The ad features a rape victim named Gretchen, and it is technically correct to say that “under mayor Sarah Palin, women like Gretchen were forced to pay up to $1,200 for the emergency exams used to prosecute their attackers.” But, as we said, it’s unclear whether Palin, as mayor, was complicit in or even aware of this policy.

The ad goes on to say that McCain “voted against legislation to protect women against these same heartless policies,” while the text on screen says that McCain “voted to let governments charge rape victims.” That part is way off base. The ad cites the Congressional Record from Aug. 25, 1994, to support this claim. That’s the day that the Senate discussed the conference report of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which did contain a provision requiring states to pay for rape testing. We checked the Congressional Record that day, and all we found was McCain making two digs at his fellow senators. He didn’t speak out against the bill that day, or make explicit his reasons for voting against it.

McCain did end up voting against the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act conference report. But if Planned Parenthood had done a little more digging in the Congressional Record, the group would have found that his vote had nothing to do with rape testing or rape anything. McCain and other senators had written a letter expressing their objections to the bill, which had to do with — guess what? — pork.

Letter from McCain et al., Aug. 23, 1994: As you know, we are deeply concerned about the escalation of violent crime in our country. We want to pass a tough crime bill, believing that strong federal legislation can make a real difference in the lives of all Americans. Unfortunately, in its current form, the conference report is seriously deficient in a number of important areas. The conference report, for example, still earmarks billions of dollars for wasteful social programs. It also fails to include a number of important tough-on-crime proposals adopted by the Senate last November.

So yes, McCain voted against one version of a bill that (among many other things) would have safeguarded women reporting a rape from being charged for tests. But it’s misleading to say that he “voted to let governments charge rape victims,” as the ad claims — his objections to the bill are clearly laid out, and have nothing to do with the cost of forensic testing. Furthermore, as our colleagues at PolitiFact point out, McCain had voted for the original bill, even though he opposed the conference report. (On the strength of that vote and McCain’s previous support for the Violence Against Women Act, PolitiFact awarded Planned Parenthood’s claim a “pants on fire” rating.)

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Gretchen, the rape victim featured in the ad, is not from Wasilla. She doesn’t say she is, nor does she say that she was charged for her own testing. The ad’s script says that “women like Gretchen” were charged in Wasilla. And because the ad focuses on McCain, it is arguably taking a more national approach to rape testing charges, making Gretchen’s hometown irrelevant. But the ad certainly associates Gretchen with the Wasilla policy, by juxtaposing her commentary with an image of Palin and a claim about Wasilla.