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Social workers say the Texas abortion law further harms victims of rape or incest

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The new abortion law in Texas is the strictest in the country, and it includes no exceptions for rape or incest. Social workers say that is harming survivors of sexual assault. Ashley Lopez at KUT in Austin has the story. And just a warning to our listeners - this story does discuss sexual violence.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: The Safe Alliance in Austin helps survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. Back before Texas' new abortion law went into effect, the alliance counseled a 12-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father. Piper Stege Nelson, the group's chief public strategies officer, says the father didn't let the young girl leave the house.

PIPER STEGE NELSON: She got pregnant. She had no idea about anything about her body. She certainly didn't know that she was pregnant.

LOPEZ: The girl was eventually able to get help. But if this had happened after September 1, when the law went into effect, her options would have been severely curtailed. In Texas, abortions are now banned as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. And the new law, known as SB8, has no exceptions for people who've been sexually assaulted. Many people don't realize they're pregnant until after six weeks. But Nelson says this is a particular problem for people who are being repeatedly raped or abused. Nelson says that's because to cope with the situation, they often grow numb to what's happening to their bodies.

NELSON: That dissociation can lead to a detachment from reality and the fact that she's pregnant. And so there again, she's not going to know that she's pregnant by six weeks, and she's not going to be able to resolve that pregnancy.

LOPEZ: Monica Faulkner is a social worker in Austin who works with sexual assault survivors. She says being unable to terminate the pregnancy will make recovering from an assault even harder.

MONICA FAULKNER: The impact of finally coming forward and then being told there's no options for you is devastating.

LOPEZ: Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term can be harmful physically, financially and psychologically. For survivors, that further strips away agency and choice after their sense of safety and control has already been violated. Again, Nelson with the Safe Alliance.

NELSON: What it's doing is it's further taking control and power away from the survivor right at the moment when they need that power and control over their own lives to begin healing.

LOPEZ: For decades, public opinion, even in Texas, has been pretty consistent about allowing some exceptions to strict abortion laws. Dr. Carol Joffe studies abortion policy at the University of California San Francisco. She says despite that support, recent anti-abortion bills introduced across the country don't usually include exceptions for rape or incest.

CAROL JOFFE: What we've seen over the years is a dramatic escalation. And I think what Texas shines a bright spotlight on it is what disdain we have for the needs of women and girls.

LOPEZ: Joffe says the trend started about 10 years ago after the Tea Party takeover in Congress and many statehouses. As many legislatures became more politically conservative, anti-abortion groups started gaining more influence in the lawmaking process.

JOFFE: The public views have really remained quite stable. The kind of restrictions we are seeing are a product of growing power in state legislatures of the anti-abortion movement.

LOPEZ: And that's been particularly true in Texas. John Seago is with Texas Right to Life, an influential anti-abortion group that pushed for SB8.

JOHN SEAGO: In the last 10 years in Texas, our Republican majority has been growing. And at kind of right around 2011, 2013, we were really having enough votes to pass strong legislation.

LOPEZ: And by strong, Seago means not having to compromise on things like allowing abortions when severe fetal abnormalities are detected. Texas got rid of those exceptions a few years ago. And now that the new law in Texas doesn't exempt rape and incest, Seago says, it's more consistent with the underlying philosophy that groups like his hold.

SEAGO: We're talking about innocent human life, that it is not their crime. It was not their heinous behavior that victimized this woman. And so why should they receive the punishment?

LOPEZ: One study estimates that almost 3 million women in the U.S. have become pregnant following a rape. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

CHANG: This story comes from NPR's partnership with KUT and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.