Social workers warn Texas' abortion ban is causing psychological harm to sexual assault survivors
Shortly before Texas' new abortion law went into effect, the SAFE Alliance, a nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual abuse, was counseling a 12-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father.
"[He] would not let her leave the house,” Piper Stege Nelson, the group's chief public strategies officer, said. “She got pregnant. She had no idea about anything about her body. She certainly didn’t know that she was pregnant. There was no way that she was going to get the help that she needed by six weeks," the cutoff to get an abortion under Senate Bill 8.
Nelson said that six-week limit presents a serious barrier for most people, who don't even know they're pregnant by that point. The law also makes no exceptions for people who are survivors of rape or incest, who are often children. She said a child is the victim of sexual assault in the U.S. about every nine minutes.
Nelson said she’s also worried about survivors of sex trafficking. Oftentimes women in these situations dissociate from their bodies when they are being repeatedly raped, she said.
“That dissociation means that she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on with her body,” she said. “That dissociation can lead to a detachment from reality and the fact that she’s pregnant. 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.”
Experts say Senate Bill 8 has also been affecting the healing process for survivors of sexual assault.
As a social worker in Austin for the past two decades, Monica Faulker says she’s worked with a lot of sexual assault survivors. She said there are serious psychological consequences to limiting the choices of a person who has finally come forward after being sexually assaulted — many times after years of abuse.
“The impact of finally coming forward and then being told there are no options for you is devastating,” she said.
“The impact of finally coming forward [about being raped] and then being told there are no options for you is devastating."
Faulkner said there are messages mental health professionals try to get across to people they're counseling. One is communicating to survivors that what happened to them is not their fault.
“Then you try to talk to them over time and try to give choices in what happens to their case and what happens to their future,” she said. “And [SB 8] is clearly is taking away any choice that they have.”
Nelson said giving people choices about where their life goes after an assault is about giving them their power back.
“Sexual assault and rape and incest are all about taking power and control away from the survivor,” she said. "[SB 8 is] 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.”
The director of communications for Texas Right to Life, a proponent of the law, said "the violence of rape will not be solved by the violence of abortion." Kimberlyn Schwartz said a pregnant rape survivor should be "empowered to carry her child to term and heal from her attack."
Texas' law is unique because it's up to private citizens to enforce — creating additional concerns for the people counseling sexual assault survivors. Anyone — including people who are not even in Texas — can sue anyone who provides an abortion to someone after six weeks. They can also sue anyone who helps that person in any way, including providing financial, logistical or even emotional support.
Faulker said she’s heard from many colleagues who are worried about how much they can say about a woman’s abortion options without getting sued.
“It’s just a really heavy burden, I think, for people who are on the frontlines right now,” she said.
The majority of people surveyed in a recent poll disapprove of the law. According to Monmouth University, about 6 in 10 Americans say abortion should always be legal or legal with some limitations. Another quarter of Americans say it should be illegal except in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life. Only 11% of people said abortion should always be illegal.
During a press conference last month, Gov. Greg Abbott was asked about the impact the law has on sexual assault survivors. He dismissed concerns about women being forced to carry out pregnancies that result from rape and instead said the state would focus on prosecuting rapists.
“Rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the state of Texas,” he said.
Faulker said it seemed like the governor wasn't taking the issue seriously. “Because if we could have eliminated rape, then why haven’t we done it?”
During an appearance on Fox News a few weeks ago, Abbott again refused to support proposed measures that would create an exception in the abortion law for rape and incest.
Nelson said her group had a record number of calls after the law went into effect in September.
“People are traumatized,” she said.
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