For years now, rape survivors’ bodies have been treated as ground zero in abortion policy rhetoric. They’re frequently reduced to political props for ultimately useless debates about rape exceptions—useless because a majority of rapes are not reported to police, as they must be to qualify for most state rape exceptions. In actuality, these exceptions allow anti-abortion politicians to make cruel, dehumanizing abortion bans palatable to the public, and gatekeep survivors’ rights to bodily autonomy.
When the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade leaked and panic descended last month, it became apparent the door will soon be wide open for more states to ban abortion, in some cases without even exceptions for rape. Sexual violence survivors will again be hit hard, creating sudden urgency for anti-rape and domestic violence advocates to make clear what they’re willing to do to protect reproductive rights.
However, leading national anti-rape and domestic violence organizations like RAINN, National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), NO MORE, and others have been surprisingly quiet about survivors’ rapidly eroding reproductive rights—no statements responding to the leaked opinion, no action plans detailing steps they would take to protect survivors’ abortion access, no social media posts acknowledging this seismic threat to victims’ fundamental human rights. Most notably, RAINN, the top organization supporting victims of sexual abuse, has yet to speak out publicly on the reversal of Roe or abortion rights. This reticence comes as, according to a report from Insider from earlier this year, one RAINN employee, a survivor herself, was pressured to complete a report as she bled from a medication abortion. RAINN did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.
At a time when politicians are fixated on making victims prove sexual trauma, even unabashedly pledging to force victims to remain impregnated by their rapists, the lack of energy, moral clarity, and proactiveness about reproductive rights from leading survivor justice organizations is “disappointing, to say the least,” survivor and advocate Alison Turkos told Jezebel. “National organizations aren’t speaking about abortion, and your silence speaks volumes. The message to survivors who have had abortions, are going to need abortion care in the future, is that you don’t care about what happens to us.”
In some cases, these organizations say they’re limited in their ability to publicly speak out on the Supreme Court decision. In an email to Jezebel, a spokesperson for NSVRC explained the organization isn’t “able to comment directly on a potential ruling due to our legislative and lobbying restrictions,” but pointed to statements being shared by its state and local partners, like the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. Rita Smith, vice president of external affairs of DomesticShelters.org, told Jezebel the network “isn’t in the space of developing policy positions or supporting particular strategies,” but that some of the shelters in its network have spoken out. Smith also noted that DomesticShelters.org offers information for victims in abusive relationships whose partners are trying to control their reproductive decisions. A spokesperson for NO MORE did not publicly comment on the decision.
Still, Turkos is right: Reproductive and survivor justice are inseparable from one another—so why aren’t leading sexual and domestic violence groups acting like it?
Reproductive oppression is a form of gender violence
When lawmakers pass abortion bans, they all but encourage similarly coercive behaviors in abusive relationships: Fifteen percent of women experiencing physical violence from a male partner have also reported birth control sabotage; a quarter of adolescent girls with an abusive male partner have reported their partner attempted to impregnate them by interfering with their contraception; and people with disabilities are even more vulnerable to reproductive coercion from an intimate partner. Homicide—frequently by an abusive partner—is the leading cause of death for pregnant people. Needless to say, when Roe is reversed, survivors who become pregnant and don’t wish to be will face daunting obstacles to obtaining an abortion. And if they can’t get one, years of research have shown they—and their kids—could be entrapped in unsafe homes, facing long-term domestic abuse.
Even prior to the reversal of Roe, abortion bans in Texas, Oklahoma, and Idaho, which are enforced via citizen surveillance and civil lawsuits, create the opportunity for rapists to stalk and profit off their victims’ abortions, should they obtain one.
Abortion bans are “an abuser’s dream,” anti-rape activist and educator Wagatwe Wanjuki told Jezebel. “They provide another tool of control over another person, and create a culture that’s distrustful of women, distrustful of victims.”
Jane Stoever, a law professor and director of the University of California, Irvine’s Domestic Violence Clinic as well as its Initiative to End Family Violence, successfully lobbied for California to add reproductive coercion, or an intimate partner trying to impregnate or force their partner to remain pregnant, to the state’s civil definition of domestic violence. She’s counseled numerous victims of domestic violence who didn’t even realize they had experienced sexual assault because it had been perpetrated by a long-term partner, and also hadn’t realized that domestic violence includes acts of reproductive coercion.
Stoever said this is due to a lack of broad recognition of reproductive coercion—whether from an abusive partner, or the government—as abuse. “Reproductive coercion is typically not the only type of abuse experienced in a relationship in which intimate partner violence is present, and it can be challenging to reveal,” she told me last year. “Naming a problem is often the first step in addressing it. Naming the behavior enables and empowers survivors to identify what they have experienced as abuse.”
Forcing an intimate partner to be pregnant is an understood form of gender-based violence. Yet, reproductive coercion from the state—abortion bans, clinic shutdown laws, criminal charges for the outcomes of people’s pregnancies—isn’t reflexively seen as violent or abusive in the same way. In a post-Roe world, it will be more vital than ever that we recognize the state as an abuser, too.
How anti-violence groups are—or should be—fighting back
Turkos worked professionally in the reproductive rights movement for several years, before she was kidnapped by a Lyft driver and gang-raped in 2017. She believes resources to access the full range of reproductive health options (like abortion) need to be at the heart of the work anti-violence organizations provide. “The folks who run the RAINN hotline should have a list next to them of every single abortion fund in every single state, because you 100% are going to see survivors calling asking for help with that,” she said. “They should be listening to the people who run abortion funds, they should be trained to help someone or direct them to the care to get a self-managed abortion. Because this is happening, and survivors are going to be asking for help.”
Destini Spaeth, who helps run North Dakota’s Women In Need abortion fund, which covers the costs of abortion care for survivors of sexual violence, said anti-rape advocacy has to support the full range of what bodily autonomy entails—all the more so at this particularly devastating time for reproductive freedom. Spaeth, who used to work at an independent abortion clinic, told Jezebel she doesn’t think “there’s a lack of advocacy” around reproductive justice from anti-rape groups, but a “lack of education and knowledge” about the connections between the issues. “I feel like if they understood what does happen when people are denied abortions—the repercussions from that in terms of domestic violence, people having to stay in unsafe homes—they would be a bit louder about reproductive rights.”
The abortion fund Florida Access Network frequently serves callers who are victims of sexual and domestic violence, and strives to offer them trauma-informed care. Co-executive director Julia Desangles, who’s worked closely with local and community anti-violence groups, knows many have lacked capacity to address reproductive rights and “are extremely overworked just like folks in the abortion access world.” Still, she believes national anti-violence organizations should, at the very least, know how to direct victims to the right reproductive health resources. “It could really come down to just more awareness to be life-saving,” Desangles said. “For instance, it’s so important for DV and survivor orgs to prioritize helping people know where to get pregnancy and abortion care through something as simple as putting abortion-centered resources on their websites.”
Shortly after the draft opinion of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization hit the internet, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) shared a blog post calling the decision “catastrophic” and warning that “abuse often escalates when a victim becomes pregnant.” In a phone interview with Jezebel, NCADV president Ruth Glenn said that NCADV isn’t an organization that directly provides resources like shelter, funding, or other assistance to victims. But following the Supreme Court decision, “influencing policy and raising public awareness” about how reproductive oppression feeds cycles of abuse will be “a top priority” for the group.
The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV), which unites grassroots and local chapters to lobby for legislation for survivors’ rights, similarly shared several social media posts about the ramifications of the end of Roe, including one warning that the decision would lead to “an increase in violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, and all those who birth.” Terri Poore, policy director of NAESV, told Jezebel the coalition’s “primary focus is policy,” and in the face of the Dobbs decision, it is supporting its local groups’ efforts to help survivors find abortion funds.
If—or rather, when—the Supreme Court formally reverses Roe this summer, NCADV and NAESV are prepared to double down on lobbying and public education.
What’s at stake for domestic violence advocates
Turkos remains bothered by RAINN’s silence on Roe, and expressed skepticism about who the organization is prioritizing. “Why are they remaining silent? I would bet they’re nervous to lose funding. They’re nervous if they say something about abortion, they will.”
Notably, in the summer of 2020 amid the nationwide uprising for racial justice, nearly 50 sexual assault and domestic violence state coalitions signed onto the “Moment of Truth” letter, which detailed the harms of policing and prisons on victims of abuse. Shortly after signing the letter, one of the groups lost funding, while others said police departments stopped referring abuse victims to their services. Anti-violence organizations could likewise possibly face retaliatory behavior for speaking about abortion rights. Still, Turkos said they should be beholden to survivors who may need abortion care—not funders or law enforcement: “Who matters more?”
Wanjuki told Jezebel in addition to possible funding issues, it’s also “important to remember a lot of anti-violence organizations are underfunded, overworked, understaffed”—a similar sentiment to what Desangles suggested. But those with the resources have an obligation to center reproductive justice in their work. “I would really just like to see them show they know what is at stake for survivors, and not just that, but how abortion restrictions have already contributed to our suffering, contribute to rape culture.”
That abortion bans and sexual violence are compartmentalized ultimately reflects a broader failure to understand these as “systemic issues,” Wanjuki continued. “If we start looking at rape culture [and] reproductive oppression beyond a violation of an individual person, but as a sort of inherent violation of justice in the world, we can get so much further.”