The Safe Alliance in Austin, Texas, helps survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. Before Texas’ new abortion law took effect, the organization counseled a 12-year-old who had been repeatedly raped by her father.
Piper Stege Nelson, chief public strategies officer for the Safe Alliance, said the girl’s father didn’t let her leave the house.
“She got pregnant, grapefruit diet pills ” Nelson said. “She had no idea about anything about her body. She certainly didn’t know that she was pregnant.”
The girl eventually got help, but if this had happened after Sept. 1, when the state law took effect, her options would have been severely curtailed, Nelson said.
In Texas, abortions are now banned as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Known as SB 8, the new law represents the nation’s most restrictive ban on the procedure currently in effect. According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national poll, Texas’ law is unpopular across the political spectrum.
Notably, the law makes no exceptions for victims of rape or incest, which runs counter to public opinion. For decades, Americans consistently have favored exceptions to strict abortion bans — even in Texas. Social workers in the state said that is causing serious harm to sexual assault survivors.
While many people don’t realize they are pregnant until after six weeks, Nelson said, the time frame is a particular problem for those who are repeatedly raped or abused. To cope with the trauma of the abuse, she said, they often grow numb to what’s happening to their bodies.
“That dissociation can lead to a detachment from reality and the fact that she’s pregnant,” Nelson said. “And so, there again, she is not going to know that she is pregnant by six weeks and she’s not going to be able to resolve that pregnancy.”
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Monica Faulkner, a social worker in Austin who has worked with sexual assault survivors, said not having the option of terminating a pregnancy will make recovering from an assault harder.
“The impact of finally coming forward and then being told there are no options for you is devastating,” said Faulkner, who directs the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing at the University of Texas-Austin.
Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term can be harmful financially, psychologically and, sometimes, physically. For survivors, Nelson said, that burden further strips away agency after their sense of safety and control has already been violated.
“And so, when you have something like SB 8,” Nelson said, “what it is doing is, it’s further taking control and power away from the survivor right at the moment when they need that power and control over their lives to begin healing.”
Faulkner said it’s important to give sexual assault survivors options on how to move forward in their lives. She said SB 8 “clearly is taking away any choice that they have.”
Carole Joffe, a professor and sociologist who studies abortion policy at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California-San Francisco, said that, despite prevailing public opinion, most of the anti-abortion bills introduced across the country in recent years have not included exceptions for rape or incest.
“What we have seen over the years is a dramatic escalation,” she said. “I think what Texas shines a bright spotlight on is what disdain we have for the needs of women and girls, or people who can get pregnant even if they don’t identify as female.”
The history of abortion exceptions is complicated. Joffe noted that toward the end of the 20th century it was more common for states to include exceptions for rape and incest. She said the trend to eliminate exceptions for rape and incest started about 10 years ago, after the tea party gained power in Congress and in many statehouses. As some legislatures became more politically conservative, anti-abortion groups gained influence in the lawmaking process. Meanwhile, as some state legislatures have increased restrictions on abortion, public views have remained quite stable in the sentiment that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest, Joffe said.
“The kind of restrictions we are seeing are the product of growing power in state legislatures of the anti-abortion movement,” she said.
In 2019, a coalition of anti-abortion groups sent letters to national Republican Party officials following the passage of a controversial abortion law in Alabama. In it, groups asked GOP leaders to “reconsider decades-old talking points” regarding exceptions for rape and incest.
In Texas, the growing power of hard-line conservatives in the state has helped anti-abortion advocates successfully push for more restrictive laws.
John Seago, legislative director with Texas Right to Life — an influential anti-abortion group that pushed for SB 8 — said the political shifts in the Texas legislature have made it easier to enact stricter abortion laws.
“In the last 10 years, in Texas, our Republican majority has been growing,” he said. “And kind of right around 2011 and/or 2013 we were really having enough votes to pass strong legislation.”
By “strong” Seago means not having to compromise on things like allowing abortions when severe fetal abnormalities are detected. Texas dropped those exceptions a few years ago. And now that the new law in Texas makes no exception in cases of rape or incest, Seago said, it’s more consistent with the underlying philosophy that groups like his hold.
“We are talking about innocent human life — that it is not their crime, it was not their heinous behavior that victimized this woman,” he said. “And so, why should they receive the punishment?”
The problem of pregnancies arising from sexual assault is not a small one. One study estimates that almost 3 million women in the U.S. have become pregnant following a rape.
This story is part of a partnership that includes KUT, NPR and KHN.
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