US abortion laws: Rape survivors in the US already unable to access terminations

Maya Oppenheim

Rape survivors in the US are being denied abortions due to financial barriers, “invasive” police intervention and a dearth of abortion providers, campaigners have warned.

Abortion rights activists argued that the procedure is already very difficult to access for huge numbers of Americans – particularly people of colour and those on a low wage.

Abortion opponents across the US have become increasingly emboldened in their efforts to roll back women’s reproductive rights since Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2016. Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced in 16 states this year.

Oriaku Njoku, the executive director of an organisation based in Georgia which helps low-income women access abortion, said the organisation had encountered women who were wanting to get their pregnancy terminated due to it being the product of rape.

“You can use medicated funds in cases rape and incest but there is a lot of bureaucracy so it is hard to get it. Most people opt not to do that. You have to have a police report. It is too complicated. People do not have time to wait for all this paperwork," said Ms Njoku, who is also the co-founder of Atlanta-based Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, which works in six different states in the south of America.

“After you have had an abortion, they test to see who the father is with DNA testing. It is a whole process. The police have to go to the hospital to get products of conception. It is really invasive. We come across people choosing not to do this a lot.

“There is also the problem that women who are rape survivors can’t afford it and they do not know where to go. They could be living with their abuser or rapist. Or not feeling like they have the support. They could be talking to someone who has this twisted mindset. People are shamed or coerced into carrying their pregnancy to full term.”

Ms Njoku’s comments came after Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed the controversial “heartbeat” abortion ban into law this month – giving the southern state one of the most restrictive laws in the US.

The legislation, which has provoked outrage among women’s rights groups, bans abortion once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo. This can be as early as six weeks – at which point many women do not yet know they are pregnant.

The bill imposes jail sentences for women found guilty of aborting or attempting to abort their pregnancies, with the potential for life imprisonment and the death penalty. It is not scheduled to come into effect until 1 January and is expected to face challenges in the courts – and potentially be postponed.

Anti-abortion activists hope challenges will lead to the US Supreme Court reversing Roe vs Wade – the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 – especially with new conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the court.

Ms Njoku argued that a lack of trust towards the police among black communities due to police brutality also led to people choosing not to report instances of sexual assault and therefore not being able to access abortion. She noted that some women might not even be able to access abortion, despite having become pregnant through incest.

She said the cost of getting an abortion in the US – where healthcare is privatised and a national health service does not exist – varies from state to state but can quickly skyrocket the further a woman moves along in her pregnancy.

Ms Njoku said: “It is about $500 for a first-trimester abortion but the price goes up every week. The most expensive I’ve seen is $22,000 for a later term abortion. She was around 24 weeks along. But people barely even have $500. Folks barely have savings when they are living paycheck to paycheck. There is also a pay gap between women of colour and white women.

Roe v Wade made abortion legal but not acceptable for people in many communities in the US. Rural people, low-income people, and people of colour struggle to access abortion. They are struggling every day and then you add on the unexpected cost of an abortion. It’s always been bad here. In Mississippi, there is only one abortion provider. There are three independent abortion providers in Alabama.

"We have been seeing independent abortion clinics closing every year due to a lack of funding and all the restrictions placed.”

The campaigner’s organisation, Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, which carries out its work in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, provides financial support, logistical help and advice around abortion.

“We drive them to get abortions, we help provide someone to watch their kids, we give them somewhere to stay out of state. We try to do what we can to eliminate barriers,” she added.

The campaigner said women who lived in rural communities often struggled to access abortions due to not having internet access or having a poor internet connection. This was often compounded, she said, by women not having any friends or family they can confide in who are in favour of abortion and therefore not having anyone who would be willing to drive them on what could be a four-hour journey to an abortion clinic or a two-hour drive to a bus stop.

They came across a woman in the south of Georgia who was not able to get anyone she knew to drive her to Atlanta for an abortion due to them objecting to the procedure – with it taking her a total of two weeks to find childcare and a lift. She had already been to the coastal city of Savannah but had been refused an abortion due to being too far along.

Ms Njoku said anti-abortion activists were “trying everything” to reverse women’s abortions rights – adding that they were just “throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks”.

She added: “They feel emboldened because they feel they have support from administration. Even the fear that is being created is starting to be a barrier to care for people. People have been calling our hotline thinking they would have to travel from Georgia to another state. Some people are scared and ask if they should cancel their appointment.

“We are reassuring people they can stay inside their home state. There is no other type of healthcare where people have to go through hoops and obstacles to access basic healthcare. If they are going to overturn Roe, abortions are not going to stop. No matter what, we are going to be here to provide for our community.”

Ms Njoku, whose organisation is run and led by black people living in the south, said she had encountered racism from anti-abortion activists while carrying out her work – with people asking “don’t black lives matter” as she goes into clinics and offering to adopt women’s babies.

More than a dozen other states have passed or are considering versions of Georgia’s law. Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have also approved bans on abortion once a foetal heartbeat is detected.

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said: “There are already large swathes of this country and thousands of people for whom the right to have an abortion is just an illusion. Since 2011, politicians have passed more than 400 medically unnecessary and politically motivated restrictions. These laws affect people of colour, people struggling financially and young people. It is important to keep the focus on what is the reality for women already.”

She will be challenging Alabama’s new law mandating a near total ban on abortion which the governor signed into law last week. Under the law, doctors would face 10 years in prison for attempting to terminate a pregnancy and 99 years for carrying out the procedure. The abortion ban, which has been branded a “death sentence for women”, would even criminalise performing abortions in cases of rape and incest.