In an unusual cascade of events on Thursday, three state legislators who sponsored a bill that would reduce welfare benefits to women who became pregnant from rape but failed to alert authorities and name their attacker removed their names from the bill.
The primary sponsor of the bill, State Rep. RoseMarie Swanger (R-Lebanon), defended the bill early in the day, only to repudiate portions of it within three hours.
One legislator who signed the bill, Keith Gillespie (R-York), said Thursday afternoon that he was removing his name from it because "it asks for proof of rape and I do not support the language." He said he hadn't seen the bill before he'd agreed to cosponsor it.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the lone Democrat among the bill's six cosponsors, Tom Caltagirone (Reading) said that his name had been placed on the bill in error.
The bill, which was introduced in the State House of Representatives Oct. 17, was meant to withhold extra money to welfare recipients who gave birth while receiving cash assistance known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.
It is unclear whether the bill has any chance of becoming law in Pennsylvania. The legislature is not expected to vote on it before it adjourns next month.
Such legislation, called a "family cap," became law in 23 states - including New Jersey - in the mid-1990s.
The cap reversed a long-standing practice of giving women on welfare incrementally more money for every child born.
The ultimate goal, experts say, was to discourage women on welfare from having more children.
One part of Swanger's proposal would exclude from the cap any woman who gave birth to a child as the result of rape or incest.
But to qualify for that exclusion, the woman must prove she reported the crime and identified her attacker, if he was known to her.
That provision is a deviation from most cap bills.
"A rape victim won't get a benefit if she doesn't report the rape," Swanger said early Thursday afternoon, defending the bill. "Isn't that reasonable? Why wouldn't you report rape?"
But about three hours later, after The Inquirer had interviewed several people about the legislation, Swanger called the newspaper to say the bill would not go forward as written.
"The rape part is not what I requested," Swanger said.
She went on to say that she had asked the House research staff to help draft the proposal, and to base her bill on existing New Jersey legislation.
That law includes a cap, but not a requirement that rape or incest be reported for the woman to qualify for benefits, according to a spokesperson for New Jersey's Department of Human Services.
Swanger said that Pennsylvania House researchers had adapted the language in her bill from an older piece of Pennsylvania legislation. Then they "put my name on it."
She added, "I didn't check," the three-page bill.
Asked why she had introduced the bill, Swanger said that her constituents implored her to do so. "They don't believe the state should continue to help families grow when they can't afford the children they already have," Swanger said.
Others condemned the bill.
"This bill punishes women for having children," said Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney with the Women's Law Project in Pittsburgh.
"How sad, mean-spirited, and punitive toward children it is," said Letty Thall, public policy director at the Maternity Care Coalition, a Philadelphia child-health agency.
Experts on rape said that the bill's authors don't understand the nature of sexual assault. Most women don't report being attacked, and are often victimized by partners or husbands, making them loath to tell authorities.
By trying to create a cap, Pennsylvania is actually bucking trends, according to Rochelle Finzel, program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group that assists legislators.
Several states with caps have rescinded them in recent years, according to Luan Huynh, a Berkeley, Calif., attorney and a national expert on caps. Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming recently eliminated caps, she said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, as well as several academic studies, have concluded that there's no evidence that caps reduce the number of births for women on welfare.
Cap legislation is proposed, experts say, because many Americans erroneously believe that low-income people have more children than better-off people. Frietsche cited studies saying that the average size of a family on welfare is roughly 3 to 4 people, the same as non-welfare families.
Janet Stefano, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a tea party group, said she was unfamiliar with Swanger's bill, but said that many conservatives believe that "we can't keep expanding welfare."
She said that society has a "moral obligation to care for the poor, but not people who don't need it and take advantage of the system."
Swanger said that because she introduced her bill late in the legislative session, she knew it would not be considered this year. She hopes to reintroduce the measure - without the clause demanding that rape victims report the crime - in January.
By the end of the day Thursday, welfare advocates were expressing wonderment about the fast-moving events.
"I don't know which was worse," said state welfare expert Cathleen Palm, "the fact that the bill was written the way it was, or the fact that the legislators said they didn't know it had been written that way.
"It's depressing that any part of this legislation is still pending."