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Update: On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade. This means that instead of being a federally protected right, access to and the legality of abortions will now be decided by individual states.
As of July 2022, nine states have banned abortions: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Utah.
Ten states are moving to ban or severely restrict abortions: Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
A further 11 states’ abortion access rights are threatened: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia.
These decisions are changing rapidly due to judges in some states temporarily blocking these “trigger bans” from taking effect. According to The Guardian, “In about 60 percent of states, abortion is now banned, soon-to-be banned or under serious threat.”
Pregnant Domestic Abuse Victims At High Risk of Violence and Murder
A study done by the Obstetrics & Gynecology Journal of the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists shows that homicide is a leading cause of death during pregnancy and the postpartum period in the U.S., with the majority perpetrated by a current or former intimate partner. Studies also show that violence can escalate during pregnancy.
Reproductive coercion is a form of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Abusers will use forced pregnancy to maintain power, control and domination over their victim. Pregnancy further ties the victim to the abuser. Abusers might rape a victim to force her to become pregnant, not allow her to use any form of birth control or deliberately sabotage contraceptives.
It’s remarkably difficult to escape domestic violence. There are numerous barriers to escape, like a lack of money due to financial abuse or threats of violence to herself and her family. In fact, leaving or trying to leave is the most dangerous time for a domestic violence survivor.
Now add pregnancy to the mix. A victim forced to carry and give birth to a child whose father is an abuser will face incredible challenges to escape that partner. Barriers that are already in place become even more intense; if a survivor can’t support herself because her abusive partner controls all the money, it becomes that much harder to support herself and a child. Even when survivors are able to divorce, courts greatly favor co-parenting arrangements–imagine being forced to co-parent your child with a rapist or abuser.
The Texas Tribune offers just one story of a woman’s struggle with reproductive coercion and domestic violence. Unable to escape her abusive husband, he restricted her from using birth control and raped her repeatedly, leading to her fourth pregnancy. Her abortion gave her the first say over her own reproductive choices in years, which was the catalyst she needed to regain control over her life.
A study published in BMC Medical showed that 6 to 22 percent of women terminate their pregnancies because they are with an abusive partner. Limiting access to abortions will keep women with abusers or increase the rate of being murdered by an abuser.
Rape Exceptions Aren’t Enough for Domestic Violence Victims
From 1973 until 2022, abortion was a protected and legal right under Roe v. Wade. Abortion has always had its share of staunch opponents; from those who believe it shouldn’t be legal for women to terminate a pregnancy or that it should come with extremely strict restrictions. These strict restrictions sometimes include dire circumstances such as when the mother’s life is in immediate danger or in cases of rape or incest.
Except that proposed “rape exceptions” in some abortion laws mean that a traumatized and newly pregnant woman must report her victimization, allowing law enforcement and the court system into her trauma–and often retraumatizing herself in the process. She may face a daunting legal process, likely to cause as much suffering as the events which brought her there in the first place.
For survivors of domestic violence who have been raped by an abusive partner, this exception would force them to choose between two options (neither of which offer much peace of mind): disclose rape and face the judgment and traumatization from law enforcement or judges while enduring dangerous consequences from the abuser or birth a child into an unsafe, unstable and violent life.
Some say that’s exactly what proponents of the rape exception are hoping for—not to help rape victims but to prevent abortion altogether.
“It clearly makes it almost impossible to get an abortion if the requirements are [survivors] have to report rape to law enforcement,” says Rita Smith, international expert in violence against women and vice president of external relations with DomesticShelters.org.
Will Rape and Domestic Violence Survivors Be Believed?
In an opinion piece for USA Today, law professor and domestic violence advocate Jane Stoever says that rape exceptions “give the false impression that rape is easy to name and define.” Many clients of hers who have been assaulted, she writes, are unsure if they’ve even been raped.
“[They] describe facts of sexual assault by acquaintances, neighbors or intimate partners and ask me, years after the occurrence, was that rape? Yes. They seek permission to name the violence.”
In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1970s (or sometimes, even more recently) that raping one’s spouse was even considered a crime, so it’s no wonder that when married women come forward with rape claims against an abusive spouse, they can expect unjust scrutiny.
But the fact is, brave survivors have told DomesticShelters.org about it time and time again: Amy Olsen’shusband raped her so she didn’t forget “who’s in control.” Amy Pilkington’s husband raped her in a drunken rage.
“There are so many caveats to this [rape exception],” says Smith. “Not only do survivors have to report, but police have to believe them.” It’s unclear in the proposed verbiage—which varies across states—if the rape exceptions in abortion laws requires a conviction for a woman to access abortion. Georgia’s law says only that a woman must file a police report first. In Arkansas, a survivor’s abuser or rapist can block her decision to get an abortion.
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But if court proceedings or a rape conviction were necessary, it could take weeks, if not months in some cases to get through a criminal trial process, excluding a survivor from receiving an abortion if the law also prohibits abortion after the first trimester.
And that’s if the survivor can find a doctor willing to provide an abortion.
Smith also raises the important question of whether or not survivors with a history of negative experiences with law enforcement—like many people of color or immigrants—will even feel safe reporting rape or abuse. The answer is likely to be no.
“We have fought this battle for decades … and now, fewer and fewer women have this medical option that they’re rightfully owed access to,” says Smith. “It’s just a whole other way that society is enabling abusers to control women. And it’s frightening to me.”
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