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How the Texas ban on most abortions is harming survivors of rape and incest

Protesters take part in the Women's March and Rally for Abortion Justice in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 2. The demonstration targeted Senate Bill 8, a state law that bans nearly all abortions as early as six weeks in a pregnancy, making no exceptions for survivors of rape or incest.
Protesters take part in the Women's March and Rally for Abortion Justice in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 2. The demonstration targeted Senate Bill 8, a state law that bans nearly all abortions as early as six weeks in a pregnancy, making no exceptions for survivors of rape or incest.

The SAFE Alliance in Austin helps survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. Back before Texas' new abortion law went into effect, the organization counseled a 12-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father.

Piper Stege Nelson, chief public strategies officer for the SAFE Alliance, says the father didn't let the young girl leave the house.

"She got pregnant," Nelson says. "She had no idea about anything about her body. She certainly didn't know that she was pregnant."

The girl was eventually able to get help, but if this had happened after Sept. 1, when the state law went into effect, her options would have been severely curtailed, Nelson says.

In Texas, abortions are now banned as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The law, Senate Bill 8, is currently the most restrictive ban on the procedure in effect in the country. According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national poll, Texas' law is unpopular across the political spectrum.

Notably, the law also makes no exceptions for people who are victims of rape or incest. Social workers in Texas say that's causing serious harm to sexual assault survivors in the state.

"Devastating" for survivors of repeated rape and abuse

While many people don't realize they are pregnant until after 6 weeks, Nelson says this is a particular problem for those who are being repeatedly raped or abused.

That's because to cope with the trauma of the abuse, 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 says. "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."

Monica Faulkner, a social worker in Austin who has worked with sexual assault survivors, says not having the option of terminating a pregnancy will make recovering from an assault even harder.

"The impact of finally coming forward and then being told there are no options for you is devastating," says Faulkner, who directs the Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing at the University of Texas at Austin.

Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term can be harmful financially, psychologically and, sometimes, physically. For survivors, that further strips away agency, Nelson says, after their sense of safety and control has already been violated.

"And so when you have something like SB 8," Nelson says, "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 says it's important to give sexual assault survivors options on how to move forward in their lives. She says SB 8 "clearly is taking away any choice that they have."

Public opinion, even in Texas, favors exceptions to strict bans

For decades, public opinion — even in Texas — has been pretty consistent about allowing some exceptions to laws that restrict abortion. Most Americans believe there should be exceptions to strict abortion bans.

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, says that despite public opinion on the matter, most of the anti-abortion bills introduced across the country in recent years haven't included exceptions for rape or incest.

"What we have seen over the years is a dramatic escalation," she says. "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 these types of exceptions is somewhat complicated. Joffe notes that toward the end of the 20th century, it was more common than now for states to include exceptions for rape and incest.

She says this trend to drop exceptions for rape and incest started about 10 years ago, after the Tea Party gained power in Congress and in many statehouses. As many legislatures became more politically conservative, anti-abortion groups started gaining more influence in the lawmaking process.

Anti-abortion movement has a tightening hold on state legislatures

Meanwhile, even as some state legislatures have been increasing the restrictions on abortion, the public views have really remained quite stable," Joffe says, with a sentiment that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest. "The kind of restrictions we are seeing are the product of growing power in state legislatures of the anti-abortion movement," she says.

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 hardline conservatives in the state has helped anti-abortion successfully push for more restrictive laws.

John Seago, the legislative director with Texas Right To Life — an influential anti-abortion group that pushed for SB 8, says the political shifts in the Texas legislature have made it easier to enact stricter abortion laws.

"In the last ten years, in Texas, our Republican majority has been growing," he says. "And kind of right around 2011/2013 we were really having enough votes to pass strong legislation."

And by "strong" Seago means not having to compromise on things like allowing abortions when severe fetal abnormalities are detected. Texas got rid of those exceptions a few years ago. And now that the new law in Texas doesn't exempt rape and incest, Seago says, 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 says. "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 comes from NPR's health reporting partnership with KUT and Kaiser Health News (KHN).

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5