Abortion exceptions for rape don't ensure victims of rape like me can get abortions

Applying for an exemption asks victims to undertake a confusing and onerous process that can compound the trauma of being raped and becoming pregnant.
Image: A imaging table inside Missouri's sole abortion clinic in St. Louis
A imaging table inside the Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood St. Louis Region, Missouri's sole abortion clinic, in St. Louis, Missouri on May 28, 2019.Lawrence Bryant / Reuters
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By Cazembe Murphy Jackson

Louisiana on Thursday became the most recent addition to a dishonorable list of states imposing abortion restrictions so draconian that they don’t include an exemption in cases of rape or incest. The laws trample on the beliefs of most Americans, who overwhelmingly support exceptions in abortion restrictions, including a sizable 45 percent of Republicans who think abortion should be legal in cases of medical necessity, rape and incest. These extreme abortion bans have caused outrage among even some anti-abortion leaders and politicians.

But if Americans really want to ensure that those who have suffered rape or incest, as I did, are able to terminate the pregnancies that result from these crimes, they need to realize that adding a few words for exceptions to laws otherwise prohibiting abortions doesn’t actually protect these victims. If the state has dramatically limited access to other abortions, they will face dramatically limited access as well.

Rape exceptions do additional harm to survivors like me by placing the burden of proof on us.

The process to get an exemption is completely unrealistic for most individuals who have been raped and found out they’re pregnant; it can be confusing, bureaucratic, onerous and challenging to find information, and policies vary in each state. Perhaps worst of all, rape exceptions do additional harm to survivors like me by placing the burden of proof on us and implicitly questioning whether our version of events can be believed. It imposes a time-consuming, emotional ordeal at a juncture when we just need to get to the nearest clinic.

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I say this as someone who did everything society instructed me to do after my rape nearly two decades ago, when I was a 20-year-old college junior in small-town Texas. I was on financial aid, going to class diligently and working hard so I could graduate. One evening during finals, while walking home from the library, I was raped by four men. At the time, I identified as a lesbian (now, I identify as a transgender man). I was wearing masculine clothes, and the men decided to violate me because of my gender expression and sexual orientation.

Cazembe Murphy JacksonThe National Network of Abortion Funds

Corrective rape,” as it’s sometimes called, is sexual violence perpetrated against queer-identifying people as punishment for living as our most authentic selves. More than 60 percent of transgender people are estimated to have experienced sexual assault, while another one in eight lesbians have. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, sexual assault among queer people is as high or higher than the rate among heterosexual people. This is one of the many reasons why abortion is a queer-health issue.

Following the rape, I told my mom and I reported it to the police. I thought the police would support me, but instead I felt dismissed. It comes as no surprise to me that, given the degree of skepticism rape claims receive from the police, it’s estimated only four in 10 rapes are reported and, of those, two-thirds go unsolved.

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About six weeks after the rape, I found out I was pregnant. I immediately knew I should get an abortion; all I wanted was to finish school, and the thought of continuing the pregnancy instead made me want to die. Thankfully, it was legal for me to get the procedure done in Texas at that time. I was forced to take out a payday loan with a high interest rate to cover the $300 cost, but that made my abortion possible. A few days later, I underwent the procedure.

I was “lucky” in that I was able to legally get an abortion, scrape together the funds to do so and — had I needed to prove that I was a victim of rape to receive the procedure — was able to go to the police. But rape exemptions don’t take into account those of us who don’t want to call the police because the police are often not helpful, particularly to survivors from communities of color. And what happens when the police are the rapists?

Exemption laws that make it the survivors’ responsibility to prove that a rape has occured by filing a police report, among other reporting requirements that vary by state, place tremendous added pressure on someone already dealing with the emotions from the rape and the subsequent pregnancy. And to have to handle all of this within days of a missed period, often at a very young age? It’s a violation all over again to have to prove what happened and why we need an abortion. No one should be violated while exercising their rights.

As Michelle Alexander asked in her moving New York Times column, how would a survivor who doesn’t have evidence or didn’t want to report it access an abortion if they were required to prove they’d been raped to get one? And what about others who want to end the cycle of violence created by the prison industrial complex by not engaging with the police? I have come to embrace this approach, since as a Black trans man, going to the police is rarely an option — I simply don’t feel safe. I expect to be treated as a perpetrator rather than a survivor. How does everyone like this get an abortion after a rape?

Exemptions also create a hierarchy of reasons for an abortion, making rape-qualifying abortions the “good abortions” and relegating those who don’t meet that standard to pursuing less safe or even criminalized methods while the stigma on them increases.

The truth is, abortion bans harm all those who need to end pregnancies, even those who theoretically are protected by exemptions. Exceptions are nothing but an empty idea; they’re not a practical way to ensure survivors receive health care. If Americans want survivors like me to be able to terminate their pregnancies — and the vast majority of the population does — abortion needs to be available to everyone.