After passing what was, at the time, the strictest abortion ban in the country, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sought to fend off critics by pledging to work to “eliminate rape” in the state. But a new study published yesterday shows the extent to which Abbott has failed to do so—even after a stricter abortion ban took effect in the state—and just how many Texans have likely been impacted.
In September 2021, when Abbott passed SB 8, the law that banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy—effectively a total ban, since that’s before most people know they’re pregnant—and allowed any private citizen to sue abortion providers and people who “aid and abet” anyone who tries to obtain an abortion, it was the strictest anti-abortion law on the books nationwide. Predictably, he faced criticism, including from a reporter who asked why he was forcing victims of rape or incest to carry their pregnancies to term under the new law. The governor falsely claimed that the law wouldn’t actually force rape and incest victims to give birth, “because it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion,” and promised he’d prioritize working to “eliminate rape” in Texas.
“Rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure 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. So goal number one in the state of Texas is to eliminate rape so that no woman, no person, will be a victim of rape,” Abbott said at the time. (Former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki quickly shut down his comments: “If Gov. Abbott has a means of eliminating all rapists or all rape from the United States, then there would be bipartisan support for that,” she said at a briefing.)
Since then, Texas’ abortion law has only gotten more extreme: abortion is now entirely illegal in the state due to a trigger ban that took effect in August 2022, two months after the Dobbs decision, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. And now we have a sense of just how many people have likely been impacted: there have been an estimated 26,300 pregnancies as a result of rape in Texas, the highest of any state with a total abortion ban, according to a study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Since there isn’t one reliable source on how many rapes occur in each state, researchers used multiple data sources—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2016–2017 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, and FBI data showing rapes reported to law enforcement—to estimate how many rapes resulted in pregnancy in the 14 states that implemented abortion bans post-Dobbs. Overall, they estimate there were more than 64,500 rape-related pregnancies in these states; about 5,500 of those occurred in the five states whose abortion bans have rape exceptions. (Other research has shown that rape exceptions are seldom granted in practice: data published in October by the nonprofit Society of Family Planning found that an average of fewer than ten abortions were performed per month in states with rape exceptions in the first year after Dobbs.)
So Texas accounted for nearly half—45 percent—of total estimated rape-related pregnancies. In other words: Abbott appears to have failed spectacularly to “eliminate rape.” And unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape will likely continue to rise in Texas in light of the abortion ban, study co-author Kari White, executive and scientific director at the Austin-based Resound Research for Reproductive Health collaborative, told the Houston Chronicle.
Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to our questions about their response to the study’s findings in light of the governor’s prior comments and what new efforts, if any, they have implemented to tackle rape in Texas since the total abortion ban took effect there in August 2022.
Jennifer Wagman, assistant professor of public health at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research focuses on sexual violence, told me she wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings, and called Abbott’s initial pledge to “eliminate rape” by arresting people “absurd”—in part because sexual violence is notoriously underreported to law enforcement, with more than two out of three sexual assaults going unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
“There are so many different facets that need to be addressed if you’re going to really, legitimately, and sincerely commit to doing [rape] prevention—you can’t just arrest people and put them in jail and expect that to solve the problem,” said Wagman, who was not involved with the study.
The JAMA paper alludes to this underreporting of rape as a limitation of the study, noting that “such highly stigmatized experiences are difficult to measure accurately in surveys.” But still, the paper helps fill an important gap in research, Wagman said: “We don’t know as much as we need to about the associations between sexual violence and abortion.”
Rose Luna, the CEO of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, which acts as the state’s federally recognized coalition and resource hub for sexual assault prevention providers, said in a statement provided to Mother Jones that the organization is “profoundly disheartened that our state fails to afford a woman her fundamental right to make personal health care decisions, especially in the aftermath of a sexual assault.”
“A survivor of sexual assault already has experienced the ultimate violation of their body; they are left to endure the lasting effects, both physically and emotionally, of this violent crime,” Luna added. “Options are vital to healing.”
The study doesn’t indicate how many people pregnant as a result of rape could have obtained abortions in spite of Texas’ ban. Pregnant Texans who can travel can obtain abortions in the nearby states of Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas, where it’s still legal, and as my colleague Abby Vesoulis has reported, some pregnant Texans seeking abortions have obtained them in Mexico. While abortion pills also remain available and can be ordered online, the financial and logistical barriers to crossing state lines for procedural abortions put the option out of reach for many—meaning that, as the study notes, many are left “without a practical alternative to carrying the pregnancy to term.”