If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.
In the time since state Rep. Lyle Larson voted to impose a near-total abortion ban in Texas this summer, the San Antonio Republican says he has heard from Democrats, independents and “pro-life, Republican women” about one aspect: the lack of exceptions for victims of rape or incest.
Of the many critiques surrounding the law, opponents have pointed to that fact as among its extreme aspects. This week, Larson filed legislation that would change that.
But the bill faces an uphill climb. Larson’s proposal has been met with skepticism from both abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion groups. And there’s no indication that Gov. Greg Abbott will add it to the agenda of the latest special session of the Texas Legislature, a move that would be necessary for it to pass.
In a Wednesday letter to Abbott, Larson called his bill a “common sense fix” that maintains the intent of the law, which bans abortions as early as six weeks, while allowing exemptions consistent with “the traditional philosophy.”
“Governor, we both know that none of us have the power to prevent rape in this state,” Larson wrote. “While your comment that we must work to end rape in this state was well-intentioned, it ignores reality.”
Larson was referring to Abbott’s comments about the new law earlier this month. When asked by a reporter why a rape or incest victim should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, Abbott said the state would work to end rape altogether.
“Rape is a crime,” he said, “and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”
In 2019, Texas reported 14,656 instances of rape, though that number is almost certainly an undercount. A 2015 University of Texas at Austin study found that more than 90% of sexual assaults in the state are not reported to law enforcement.
Abbott’s office did not return requests for comment on Larson’s proposed measure. Meanwhile, members of both sides of the abortion debate criticized the idea.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, chair of the House Women’s Health Caucus, said Texas Democrats raised the issue of exemptions throughout the legislative process, and even sought out Republican legislators who might carry an amendment to add them. Raising the issue now, she said, looks like an attempt to lessen the pushback against the most restrictive abortion law in the nation.
“All those folks voted for it knowing that [the exemption] was not included,” Howard told The Texas Tribune, though she said she would welcome further discussions about how the state can ensure individuals who have been assaulted are not subject to abortion bans.
Larson, meanwhile, suggested that he believes an exemption was left out of the original law in part because lawmakers assumed the law would be thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has recognized a constitutional right to an abortion for nearly 50 years. The high court, however, declined to block the law from going into effect.
“I think a lot of people were surprised what the outcome was, not only in Texas but throughout the country, red states included,” Larson said. “Everybody thought it was unconstitutional.”
Larson didn’t directly answer whether he thought that, saying he thinks “other folks believed it.”
But John Seago, the legislative director for Texas Right to Life, called the comment “ridiculous.” Seago said the anti-abortion organization presented charts showing lawmakers how the new law differed from similar failed legislation and actually stood a chance in federal court.
The Legislature should “correct” the bill by adding the exemption now, Larson said, rather than waiting for the next regular legislative session in 2023.
But Howard said she takes issue with a lack of specificity in Larson’s proposal concerning how survivors would receive exemptions. If the standard of proof to be eligible to receive an abortion were to be that someone had been prosecuted for rape or incest, Howard said that would limit who can be exempted, considering cases of sexual assault and rape are underreported and underprosecuted. However, no one should have to be assaulted to receive legal autonomy over their body, Howard added.
“The only way to ensure all survivors are captured would be to make it clear that self-reporting is the only qualification necessary to receive the exception,” Howard said. “We must ensure that we’re not causing any additional harm by placing the burden of proof on the survivor.”
When asked about Howard’s concerns around the lack of specificity, Larson said those details could be addressed with the input of the medical, legal and law enforcement communities if the bill proceeds.
Meanwhile, Jackie Dilworth, director of marketing and communications at Whole Woman’s Health, said the damage has been done. Staff members at Whole Woman’s Health have been turning away patients for weeks and will have to continue doing so unless the courts block the law.
And Dyana Limon-Mercado, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said a six-week ban with exceptions is still “extreme.”
“It’s not the government’s role to decide which abortions are good abortions and bad abortions,” Limon-Mercado said. “There are no good abortions or bad abortions. There are only needed abortions. And all patients, regardless of their circumstance, are worthy of accessing the health care they need.”
The proposal also drew immediate opposition from Texas Right to Life. Seago said the organization “strongly opposes” Larson’s bill.
“The motivation for [the new law] is to protect the most vulnerable among us from the violence of elective abortion,” he said. “Creating loopholes and exceptions, where not all unborn children would be treated equally, violates our pro-life principles.”
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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