Republican lawmakers in Tennessee introduced a bill this week that would add a rape exception to the state’s near-total abortion ban—with the caveat that those who “lie” about being raped to access abortion care could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. The bill, which Jessica Valenti first surfaced in her abortion news newsletter on Tuesday, would also require rape victims who do receive abortion care (which they can only get after an invasive forensic exam) to preserve and submit “a sample of the embryonic or fetal tissue extracted during the abortion” to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for “investigation into the offense.”
Introduced by State Sen. Ferrell Haile (R) and state Rep. Iris Rudder (R), it refers to children as young as 12 as “women,” specifying that child rape victims who are 12 or younger can get an abortion up to 10 weeks into their pregnancy, while children and adults who are 13 or older can have an abortion at up to eight weeks.
The measure (SB857 in the state Senate and HB1440 in the state House) essentially threatens rape survivors, who are systematically disbelieved, with prison time for seeking health care. It also threatens them with criminal investigation into their fetal tissue even if they are believed and get an abortion.
Haile and Rudder’s proposed rape exception is “designed to be unworkable,” said Jalessah Jackson, interim executive director of ARC-Southeast, an abortion fund that serves several states including Tennessee, and poses just another set of barriers. The health care system is already untenable for survivors: A study from last September found costs for sexual assault-related health care visits averaged at $3,550 for all victims and $4,550 for pregnant victims.
Despite being presented as an act of compassion from anti-abortion lawmakers, the bill discourages rape victims from coming forward, and possibly from seeking health care at all. Who would stake three years of their life on the statistically low chance of being believed and supported by law enforcement? Fewer than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions.
In effect, rape exceptions are “entirely disingenuous,” Destini Spaeth, who helps run the North Dakota-based Women In Need abortion fund, told Jezebel. They’re merely “PR for anti-abortion politicians” while serving as a “deterrent” to survivors, separating ostensibly “good” abortions from “bad.”
“It’s just another round of violation of their autonomy within the health care system, within a police and judicial system that routinely hurts survivors,” Spaeth said.
By threatening survivors seeking abortion care, Tennessee’s bill builds on existing, systemic issues: Sexual assault survivors are often threatened with criminalization, sometimes upon reporting their assailant, and face jarringly high rates of incarceration. And criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes—including abortion—often implicate victims of violence: In 2019, a woman was jailed for fetal homicide when she miscarried after she was shot.
At roughly the same time SB587/HB1440 was introduced in Tennessee, Utah’s legislature introduced an abortion ban with a rape exception that requires victims seeking abortion to report their rape to police. This sort of caveat—involving law enforcement for survivors to access abortion—has become increasingly common in anti-abortion legislation, and it’s especially jarring given that the overwhelming majority of rapes aren’t reported.
But even lawmakers who introduce bans that don’t include rape exceptions still find ways to bolster law enforcement at victims’ expense: In September 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) defended his state’s abortion ban and its lack of rape exceptions by stating that he would simply “eliminate all rapists from the streets.” This, he would supposedly achieve by giving more funding to the same police officers who do little to nothing to prevent sexual violence and frequently perpetrate it themselves.
Legal experts pointed out that Abbott’s 2021 abortion ban—enforced by allowing people to sue anyone who helped someone get an abortion for at least $10,000—opened the door for rapists to stalk and sue their victims and potentially profit off their pregnancies. Other abortion bans and proposals (including one that called for “community review” panels to determine whether victims are eligible for a rape exception) carry outsized harm for survivors—especially the child survivors that SB857/HB1440 treats as adults: Last summer, a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio was forced to travel to Indiana for abortion due to Ohio’s virtually exception-less ban.
The impact of abortion bans on survivors—and all pregnant people who consequently become victims of this form of state-perpetuated violence—is the same, with or without exceptions that could possibly throw survivors in prison.
“Abortion is the most critical way to protect victims, help them out of an unsafe situation, not prolong their connection to someone who’s assaulted them,” Spaeth said. “Protecting survivors means no abortion bans, not just exceptions that don’t work.”