COVID-19 Update: Anti-abortion groups are exploiting the current public health crisis by lobbying to delay or ban abortion access, deeming it nonessential healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Washington Post reports least four states—Ohio, Texas, Mississippi and Kentucky—have ended abortion services in their states, except when the woman’s life is in immediate danger, arguing that physicians and medical facilities need to prioritize COVID-19 cases. Yet, as the Post points out, unwanted and unplanned pregnancies are more likely to increase healthcare needs overall due to a higher risk of complications or preterm birth from a lack of prenatal care or, as we explain below, the effects of domestic abuse while pregnant.
Abortion has been a protected and legal right under Roe v. Wade since 1973. It’s had its share of staunch opponents since then as well, those who believe it shouldn’t be legal for women to terminate a pregnancy or, if the option did exist, should come with strict regulations and parameters for only the most dire of cases. Like rape.
Except the proposed “rape exceptions” in some abortion laws means that a traumatized and newly pregnant woman must claim her victimization, allowing law enforcement and the court system into her trauma. She may face a daunting legal process, likely to cause as much suffering as the events which brought her there in the first place.
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Exception Puts Domestic Violence Survivors at Risk
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 potential judgement from law enforcement or judges, as well as endure potential dangerous consequences from the abuser, or birth a child into an unstable and possibly violent life.
And some say that’s exactly what proponents of the rape exception are hoping for—not to help rape victims but to prevent abortion all together.
“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. “Part of her strategy is that she hasn’t told him she’s pregnant.
Her “strategy” that Smith talks about is a safety plan—a series of steps and decisions that a survivor plans for with an advocate in order to escape abuse alive. Notoriously, the most dangerous time for a survivor is when they choose to leave an abuser.
“This [decision] should be a conversation between a doctor and a patient about what should happen, not law enforcement,” says Smith.
Will 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 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’s husband 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 exception in abortion laws requires a conviction for a woman to access an 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.
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.
Smith also raises the important question of whether or not survivors with a history of bad experiences with law enforcement—persons of color, immigrants—will even feel safe reporting rape or abuse. The answer is likely, more often than not, to be no.
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Even though the ACLU is challenging these proposed laws and, as it stands today, abortion is still legal in all 50 states, it is becoming harder and harder to access, says Smith. In 2018, 15 states enacted 27 new abortion restrictions, piling on top of the 63 abortion restrictions passed the year prior. Between 2011 and 2016, 162 clinics providing abortions closed in the U.S. largely due to restrictive legislation. According to the Guttmacher Institute, roughly 800 clinics remain in the U.S. that provide abortions—mostly in larger, urban areas, leaving 89 percent of counties in the U.S. without a clinic. For a third of women in rural areas, their closest clinic is over 100 miles away.
“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.”
To learn more about an abuse tactic called reproductive coercion, read “Ask Amanda: I’m Pregnant With My Abuser’s Child.”
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