DALLAS — Advocates for sexual assault survivors in Texas have been keeping close tabs on the six-week abortion ban — and they’re worried. Senate Bill 8, which took effect on Wednesday, has no exceptions for rape or incest. If advocates offer an abortion referral to a survivor carrying a baby conceived in rape, they could be sued.
The lack of rape or incest exception sets S.B. 8 apart from some of the abortion bans that have been passed — and subsequently struck down — in other states. If survivors of sexual violence are pregnant and want to get an abortion after six weeks gestation, they now have to go out of state.
Under the new law, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed in May, anyone who helps facilitate an abortion after six weeks can be held liable. The legal language is markedly vague, potentially exposing anyone from the doctor who performed the abortion to the Uber driver who drove the patient to the clinic to a lawsuit that could bury them in legal fees. Across the state, agencies that offer support for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are preparing for what may come.
In June, the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center heard from a caller with a very specific question: If a rape victim tells you she is pregnant, what do you say?
The caller identified themselves as “pro-life advocate,” said chief executive Amy Jones. In the three and a half years she’s worked for the organization, Jones says they’ve never gotten a call like that.
Leading up to Sept. 1, when Texas’s six-week abortion ban took effect, Jones said the hotline received another two calls that were nearly identical.
Jones says she suspects the callers were antiabortion vigilantes eager to sue DARCC for potentially violating the law. “I felt like they were already fishing for a defendant in a lawsuit." Her advocates told these callers that they would provide any referrals the survivor requested, Jones said. “It was scary.”
Jones sees S.B. 8 as a “viable threat” to her organization, a small nonprofit with 19 full-time employees.
“I would like to think that I’m overreacting, but I have to look around at the reality,” she said. “If I was really motivated to catch someone, I would look at organizations like mine.”
S.B. 8 will have a profound impact on many of the clients who pass through Genesis, a domestic violence shelter in Dallas, said chief executive Jan Edgar Langbein. She said she often sees clients who have been victims of “reproductive coercion.” Their male partners won’t allow them to use birth control, she said. As a result, they may have a new baby every year. For many men, she added, this is a control tactic: If the woman has seven kids, the man knows it will be harder for her to leave.
When Jones considers all the people who will be forced to carry their rapists’ babies under S.B. 8, she said, the thought brings her “to her knees.”
“To know that for the next nine months of your life you’re going to be carrying around a piece of this person who completely disregarded your humanity — there is irreparable harm in that,” Jones said.
John Pisciotta, the director of the antiabortion group Pro-Life Waco, says he thinks rape victims could benefit from an abortion ban. When you perform an abortion on a rape victim, he said, “you’re just redoubling the woman’s trauma.” He has met women who are happy they kept children conceived in rape, he said.
“The mom is not crushed," he said. "That’s not a rapist’s child. That’s her child.”
Langbein worries about the husbands and boyfriends who might use S.B. 8 as a mechanism to “get back” at her employees. Male partners have lashed out at Genesis staff long before S.B. 8, she said.
“After [the survivor] leaves, the abuse is often generalized to friends and family and anyone who helped her get out.” Genesis staff have to be “hyper vigilant,” she added, ready for any kind of physical or legal assault. Langbein herself has been targeted in court by an angry partner, she said.
Under S.B. 8, she said, male partners could accuse a Genesis counselor of talking about abortion, she said — and take the counselor or the organization to court.
Since Wednesday, some sexual assault and domestic violence organizations have met with lawyers to reevaluate the language they use to discuss abortion with pregnant clients. Others have resolved to carry on as usual, despite the risks.
As soon as the law took effect, Jones emailed all her staff members with additional guidance. She told them to ask each caller a few more questions upfront, she said, especially those who ask questions about pregnancy or abortion. “Are you calling for you or someone you know?" Jones encouraged them to ask. "Are you calling from an organization?” In her experience, she said, people who call with a “nefarious purpose” usually stumble or hang up after a few follow-up questions.
She also told staff members to use more general language in these kinds of conversations. First, she said, counselors will advise clients to talk to their health provider about their options. If they don’t have one, counselors will direct them to Planned Parenthood.
“We’d say, ‘This is a referral we make frequently for pregnant people who need health care.' ”
A few hours after the law took effect, Paige Flink, the chief executive of The Family Place, another domestic violence shelter in Dallas, got an email from one of her counselors. The counselor asked what she should say to pregnant clients who might be interested in abortion, Flink said.
“She wanted to know: What’s going to happen to me if I talk to a woman about that?”
Flink forwarded the email to her lawyer, who said she had to research the law. In the meantime, Flink said, Family Place counselors will continue to counsel their clients as they always have. While the shelter counselors would never actively encourage anyone to get an abortion, Flink said, they will do what they can to support the client’s choice. If they ask for a referral to an abortion clinic, they would help her find one. They may also arrange transportation to her appointment, Flink said.
If a Family Place counselor is sued by an antiabortion activist, Flink said, she is ready to fight.
“We are going to protect our staff and assure them that, whatever happens, we will defend them until the end.”
“Sue me,” Flink said. “Go for it.”