Domestic violence victims’ limited options will dwindle post-Roe
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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. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to text with a trained crisis counselor.
When G. found out she was pregnant for the fourth time, she decided it was time for her to die.
She refused to bring another child into the home she shared with her husband, who frequently raped her and beat her and her two sons. She’d already lost one pregnancy after he kicked her in the stomach during a brutal beating.
“I just thought, I can’t have one more baby with this man,” she told The Texas Tribune. “I’m going to kill myself and I can’t wait any longer.”
It was 2003, and G., identified in this story by the first initial of her nickname because she fears retaliation from her ex-husband, had been trying unsuccessfully to leave her marriage for more than six years.
A friend persuaded her to go to a Houston-area Planned Parenthood to learn about her options. She gathered the money for a medication abortion and at a follow-up appointment a week later, an ultrasound confirmed that she’d terminated her pregnancy.
“It was just like a breath of fresh air after being strangled for so long,” she said. “It felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel. There was hope.”
This was the first decision she’d made for herself about her reproductive choices in years. The feeling of being in control of her own life sparked something deep inside her. A year and a half later, she began the process of divorcing her husband.
It’s hard for her to even imagine where her life would be if she hadn’t been able to access that abortion.
“If you start taking away women’s autonomy to choose what to do, you’re just trapping them over and over,” she said. “If their husband is already telling them there’s nowhere for them to go, it’s easy to believe. And it’s just becoming more true.”
Abusive partners often tightly control a victim’s reproductive choices by restricting the use of contraception or even engaging in sexual assault. Once they’re pregnant, a victim is at much higher risk of violence.
Women who are pregnant or recently gave birth are twice as likely to die by homicide than any other cause of maternal mortality, most often at the hands of an intimate partner.
For those who have been able to access it, abortion, advocates say, has represented a lifeline — and often the safest option — for many experiencing intimate partner violence.
But now, the U.S. Supreme Court is on the precipice of overturning Roe v. Wade, clearing the way for Texas to ban abortion in nearly all cases. Domestic violence victims are among the least likely to be able to travel out of state or safely self-manage a medication abortion at home, leaving them no choice but to carry a pregnancy to term.
For advocates and legislators who have spent decades working to ban abortion in Texas, domestic violence does not justify an exception to the rule.
“When a woman is a victim of sexual assault that results in pregnancy, from our point of view, we now have two victims,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life. “Violence is not a solution to violence, and we consider abortion very much a violent act.”
Pojman argues that abortion perpetuates violence by allowing abusers to cover up evidence of sexual assault and reproductive coercion.
But G. went to the hospital countless times, including to deliver two babies, without anyone intervening to help her. She is still dealing with physical and mental consequences from her decadelong abusive marriage, including the trauma of seeing her husband physically assault her children.
“I’ve heard people say, you just need to learn to close your legs,” she said. “I locked and barricaded the door, and it didn’t stop him.”
Violence and pregnancy
G.’s life was marked by abuse from an early age. She was molested and raped by her uncle and was sexually assaulted in high school. Seeking the love she never found in her own family, she fell into relationship after relationship with narcissistic, abusive men.
“This was their M.O., to find people who were needy and had low self-esteem like me,” she said. “I was easy prey.”
When G. met the man who would become her husband, she was undergoing medical treatment related to her childhood sexual abuse, which prevented her from using hormonal birth control. He was still married, but he promised to leave his wife for her, and she believed him.
A year or so after they started dating, she got pregnant.
She considered having an abortion, but she says her doctor told her to “think twice,” because her health issues meant that this might be her only chance to have a child.
“I thought, maybe this will be a good thing because this baby will love me,” she said. “I’ll have the love and attention I’ve always wanted all my life, whether or not I get married to him.”
She planned to raise the baby on her own. But then, when she was eight months pregnant, she fell and shattered her leg. Her future husband moved in to take care of her and never left.
“It was great for a while,” she said. “Everything always starts off great.”
Between her broken leg and maternity leave, G. lost her job, which caused financial stress, exacerbated by the emotional stress of a newborn baby. She started to see a new side of her husband — short-tempered, quick to anger, increasingly violent.
This isn’t uncommon. Domestic violence often begins or is exacerbated during pregnancy, experts and advocates warn.
“Pregnancy disrupts the equilibrium that typically [a victim] has worked so hard to establish to mitigate the anger and violence and abuse,” said Emilee Whitehurst, president and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Many domestic violence shelters, including the Houston Area Women’s Center, screen people who call their hotline to determine how likely it is that they’ll be violently assaulted or killed by their partner. One of the key questions is whether they are pregnant.
“And that’s because the connection between pregnancy and violent abuse is so strong,” Whitehurst said.
Challenges to leaving
After G.’s son was born, the situation deteriorated. Her husband was emotionally and physically abusive, and he would also sexually assault her, refusing to wear a condom even though he knew she was unable to use birth control.
If she locked herself away from him, he’d bang down the door. If she tried to fight back, he would turn his violence on their son. So eventually, she just started giving in, mentally disassociating as he repeatedly raped her.
Sexual assault is one form of reproductive coercion, an extremely common form of domestic violence where an abuser exerts control over their victim’s reproductive decisions. It can also take the form of acts like poking holes in a condom, lying about contraception or substituting birth control medication.
“In these situations, a really important piece of it is thinking about how someone even got pregnant in the first place,” said Natalie Nanasi, director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women at SMU Dedman School of Law. “Was this pregnancy done through force? Or is it something they were coerced into doing by an abuser who potentially saw their power and abuse waning and thought, hey, this is a good way for me to capture this person for the long term?”
G. got pregnant again, less than a year after she gave birth to her son. She decided then that she would gather up the money and the courage and leave her husband, taking her children with her.
But before she could escape, when she was around 25 weeks pregnant, her husband brutally beat her once more, kicking her repeatedly in the abdomen until she couldn’t feel the baby move anymore.
She lost the pregnancy.
“I learned to detach at that point,” she said. “I just wouldn’t care about pregnancy anymore and would not be close to my children the way I wanted to anymore.”
She quickly got pregnant again; this time she pursued adoption. But her husband found out and said he wouldn’t forfeit his parental rights, so she abandoned that plan. When she gave birth to her second child, she ended up in the hospital for weeks due to complications stemming from a sexually transmitted infection her husband gave her.
“So here I am with an STD and a newborn baby,” she said. “I’m broke and stuck with him until I can get the kids out of day care, because I couldn’t afford to work and pay for day care without him.”
G. seriously considered leaving many times. But she had no money, two young children and her husband’s voice, ringing in her ears, telling her no one would believe her. He told her, over and over again, that he would smear her reputation and she’d never see her children again.
This is part of the abuser playbook, Nanasi said.
“Once they have this child in common, they’re going to have to co-parent or be in family court fighting over custody, and they’re financially intertwined through child support,” she said. “It’s an exercise of power and control … a way for an abuser to remain in someone’s life.”
G. was isolated from friends and family, and she believed her husband when he told her she had no support network. At various points, she looked into going to a shelter but she felt like she needed a longer-term solution than shelters could offer her.
Two decades later, shelter capacity and response has improved across Texas, but domestic violence advocates and shelter directors will be the first to admit that supply will never be sufficient to meet the demand for their services.
Whitehurst, with the Houston Area Women’s Center, said her organization is preparing for what it would mean if more pregnant patients, particularly those with young children, need services from an already overburdened system. Nonetheless, she encourages anyone experiencing domestic violence to reach out to their local shelter, even if they’re not trying to leave their home situation immediately.
Advocates can help clients work on safety planning, focusing on things like securing firearms or finding consistent housing to stabilize the family.
“Most of the people we touch are not fleeing,” she said. “They are managing in dynamics that are difficult and disempowering, but in their estimation, are better than leaving right now … we believe in these circumstances, the client knows what is in her best interest.”
Pojman, with the Texas Alliance for Life, said the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program. which distributes more than $100 million to crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies, can help step up to support people in violent situations.
“The state of Texas, as imperfect as our systems are, has a responsibility, as does the entire pro-life movement, to do everything possible to help that woman and her unborn child get out of that abusive situation,” he said.
But helping pregnant people leave domestic violence situations is fraught, difficult, time-intensive work for even the most experienced advocates, Whitehurst said.
“We are looking at childbirth, the need for child care, the need for insurance — and that’s just the beginning,” Whitehurst said. “It’s not simply about that initial safety. It’s a long-term investment … in her ability to provide a safe and stable upbringing for her children.”
Abortion as an option
When G. found out she was pregnant for the fourth time, she couldn’t stand the idea of bringing another child into her dysfunctional home. Another pregnancy meant restarting the clock — another maternity leave, another infant, another day care payment.
She saw no way out. She saw no way to save her children. She saw no future for herself.
The only option she could see was suicide.
“It was the end of the line for me,” she said. “I had to find a way to make the madness stop.”
That’s when a friend suggested going to Planned Parenthood, just to get a sonogram and see if she could afford an abortion. She went to the appointment without telling her husband, a rare defiance of his tight rules, and got the two-medication regimen to terminate her pregnancy.
“The only thing that was a problem was that I got a lot of grief from the protesters outside the clinic,” she said. “But at that point, I was just like, ‘Get the hell out of my way. You have no idea what I’ve been through.’”
Abortion has never been easily accessible for domestic violence victims in Texas. Unlike many other states, Texas has no exception in its abortion statutes for victims of rape and incest, and hasn’t since at least 2005.
Advocates have warned for years about the impact on domestic violence victims, and other marginalized groups, of long driving distances between clinics, increasing costs and narrowing windows of care. For more than nine months, they’ve been operating under a ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, a point at which many people don’t yet know they are pregnant.
But even with all these restrictions, abortion has always been, at least, a possibility. Now, though, that last shred of access could disappear, leaving victims with no choice but to carry their pregnancy to term.
“The inability to access this very safe medical procedure does increase the lethality risk for women who are in abusive situations,” Whitehurst said. “It’s too soon to see how that impacts homicide rates for pregnant women, but I don’t think we’ll be surprised if that comes to pass.”
For G., the decision to get an abortion marked a turning point for her and her children. She left her tenuous health care job and got her teaching certification so she could work on the same schedule as her children. She started socking away money.
Eventually, when her husband strangled her once again, she told her son to call the police. By the time they arrived, she had passed out, but it was enough to get a restraining order. The officers who responded convinced her husband to move out of the house.
It took more than three years, but she eventually divorced him. It wasn’t easy to be a single mom to two traumatized young boys or navigate co-parenting with a man who continued to physically and emotionally abuse her every chance he got.
But it was better than living her life on eggshells.
Nearly two decades later, G. is still dealing with the fallout from the abuse she suffered. She has had spinal and brain surgeries and eventually had to leave her teaching job due to medical issues and post-traumatic stress disorder related to the abuse.
For years, G. has taken comfort in the idea that the world is getting better for victims and survivors of domestic violence. She thinks about what a difference it would have made to have easy access to long-acting reversible contraception, like an IUD, or more widespread understanding about child sexual abuse, trauma and PTSD.
But when she thinks about the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade, she said it feels like all that progress may soon be lost. She thinks of all the women in abusive situations who can’t leave the neighborhood, let alone the state, to seek an abortion. Women who will continue to be tethered to their abuser for decades, parenting children conceived against their will.
She has spent years in therapy, working through her trauma and healing her relationship with her sons. But sometimes, she’ll pick up the phone or see them in a certain light, and it all comes flooding back.
“Especially the oldest — sometimes he looks so much like his dad, it spooks me,” she said. “I love my son, but sometimes I just can’t be around him.”
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter 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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