'Advocates' hands are tied': Texas abortion ban prevents rape counselors from doing their jobs
Texas rape crisis centers, and the people they serve, operate in a completely different world than that of two years ago.
Juliana Gonzales, senior director of sexual assault and health services for The SAFE Alliance in Austin, said the state's ban on nearly all abortions has tied advocates' hands. SAFE can be sued or get its grant funding cut if it supports a rape survivor's decision to end a pregnancy.
The restrictions are not helping the people SAFE serves move toward healing and justice, she said.
"Everyone needs and deserves access to reproductive health care,” Gonzales said. “Survivors, in particular, are impacted by lack of access, and that plays out in a number of different ways. You can imagine that for a survivor of sexual violence, it is often not part of their healing journey to continue with those pregnancies.”
More power to the perpetrators
Senate Bill 8, the near-total ban on abortion that went into effect in 2021, does not carve out exceptions for cases of rape or incest. The state's "trigger law," which went into effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned, also doesn't make an exception for rape or incest.
Gonzales said being pregnant within a domestic violence situation brings even more danger to survivors.
“Domestic violence is all about dynamics of power and control," she said. "And so controlling somebody’s reproductive life, controlling their options in terms of children and controlling their children are all conduits to more abuse and violence."
A 2021 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found homicide to be among the leading causes of death among pregnant and postpartum people. Those who were pregnant or within one year of their child’s birth were 16% more likely to be killed as compared to “nonpregnant and nonpostpartum females of reproductive age.”
The inability to terminate a pregnancy generally gives an abuser more control, said Rene Baker, sexual assault response team specialist for Family Crisis Center in Bastrop.
She described one survivor whose abuser kept her "pregnant all the time." She was stuck at home with no money or transportation and discovered she was pregnant again.
"Now she doesn’t have an alternative because it’s too late for Plan B, " Baker said, referring to the over-the-counter emergency contraceptive, which must be taken within five days of sex to prevent pregnancy. “But now that’s been taken from her. Even though she knows that she physically and mentally can’t take care of a fifth child, she doesn’t have a choice. And offenders will use that against them. They use that power to manipulate the situation.”
'Where are those resources?'
Before SB 8 was enacted, Baker said, her organization was able to provide rape survivors information about options for medical care and transport them to a clinic if they wanted an abortion.
Now she and her team have fewer options to support survivors, and those that do exist are more risky and expensive.
One pregnant rape survivor asked Baker about leaving the state for the procedure.
“Well, you can, but is that safe for you to do?” Baker remembers saying. “Have you checked the clinic out? Have you verified the clinic is good? Have you verified the doctors? Have you read recommendations and reviews before you travel to this other state?”
There is also the question of what becomes of a child born out of rape.
“A year or two down the line, you’ve got a family dynamic that’s going to need some support,” Cathy Henzen, executive director of Family Crisis Center in Bastrop, said. “Where are those resources out there to help families deal with a child in their home that had come from rape?"
There are far fewer sexual assault survivors reaching out to Family Crisis Center for support as compared to years past. That's not because sexual assaults are occurring less frequently.
The number of rapes reported in Texas in 2021 — the most recent figures available from the Texas Department of Public Safety — was 14,972, roughly the same amount as three years earlier, before SB 8 was enacted.
Baker and Henzen say the trend of fewer survivors coming forward is “absolutely” attributable, at least in part, to SB 8.
Family Crisis Center expects to serve just nine sexual assault survivors in 2023. It served at least 23 people in each of the previous two fiscal years.
People aren’t reaching out for help because they don't feel they have any medical options other than Plan B, Baker said.
Another level of trauma
Elizabeth Boyce, general counsel and director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said SB 8 and the trigger ban fail to take into consideration the experience of survivors.
“A primary tenet of advocacy is to ensure that survivors’ sense of bodily autonomy is restored, and that they have plenty of options, because their options were definitely taken away just by virtue of their assault,” she said. “These laws do not advance that goal of advocacy."
Boyce said the bans not only restrict a survivor’s right to make important health care decisions, but they also add another level of trauma.
“And because advocates' hands are tied," she said, "they’re prohibited by law from helping them to empower them in the ways that they might need."
In some Texas counties, there are virtually no services available for rape survivors. Some are on a three-month waitlist to see a counselor, Boyce said, particularly if they don't speak English.
Limited or nonexistent resources in rural communities is not a new development, but confronting those barriers under the abortion ban is.
“We’re pleased to see that the funding for crisis centers has risen over the years,” Boyce said. “But due to increased demand, particularly during the pandemic and with population growth, the increases just haven’t been sufficient.”
Henzen said her nonprofit has been similarly restricted in what it can do for survivors, though the center does continue to offer a 24/7 crisis hotline, hospital accompaniment for forensic exams, help with protective orders and emergency shelter.
“All the victims that we serve have barriers, so many already,” Henzen said. “Add one more to the mix.”
In April, Family Crisis Center displayed an exhibit at the Bastrop Museum and Visitor Center in recognition of sexual assault awareness month. Around 1,200 people visited, Henzen said. Bernie Jackson, assistant executive director of Family Crisis Center, said the display brought one visitor — a man — to tears.
"It is always, always very vital to us when we can get the message across to men, who can get it across to other men, who can get it across to boys," she said. "Because a lot of that responsibility lies with their being educated on, ‘This is not acceptable. This is not right."