By Sandra Henriquez / Truthout
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it cleaved the United States in two. States like Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Texas have all banned essential reproductive care and created a national public health crisis. These bans are particularly dangerous for survivors of rape and domestic violence and the advocates who fight for them.
Other states, such as Colorado, New York, Minnesota and Washington have strengthened protections on essential care by passing shield laws that protect medical professionals offering reproductive and gender-affirming care to people within and beyond their own state borders. California’s Senate Bill 345, authored by State Sen. Nancy Skinner, just passed the state legislature and would similarly strengthen the state’s safe haven laws for essential care, offering new protection to providers, patients and advocates alike.
If signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in early October, California’s shield law would offer the strongest protection of any shield law yet passed, having a massive impact on providers and people seeking abortion and gender-affirming care across the country amid state-level abortion bans.
California has a long history of enacting shield laws for various purposes, dating back as early as the mid-1930s, but SB 345 is the strongest shield law to date. SB 345 will provide lifesaving protections at a time when health care providers are being criminalized for simply doing their job.
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Notably, the bill protects survivors of sexual and domestic violence who seek sanctuary in California, and prohibits bounty hunters and bondsmen from apprehending someone facing prosecution or imprisonment in a state hostile to abortion or gender-affirming care. It also protects providers licensed in California who offer essential care for people who travel to the state, or to people in other states via telemedicine. SB 345 has tremendous potential to prompt passage of more and better shield laws across the country and takes a united stand against abortion hostile states that are passing oppressive laws.
Roe was decided at the height of a cultural reckoning that included movements against sexual assault and domestic violence. Grassroots rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters (at the time known as “battered women’s shelters”) were established throughout the country. For nearly five decades, Roe enabled advocates to openly and legally support survivors’ decisions related to pregnancy.
Now, however, anti-abortion activists have expanded the targets of their extremism beyond patients and medical providers, writing laws that potentially criminalize family, friends, rideshare drivers, or anyone they claim has facilitated access to abortion — including advocates for sexual and domestic violence survivors like us.
There are currently 14 states with total abortion bans in place. The 2021 so-called “Texas Heartbeat Act,” SB 8, bans abortions after six weeks — a point at which there is no consensus that a heartbeat exists — denying abortion access to the vast majority of pregnant people in Texas. Particularly onerous is the bill’s bounty provision, creating an economic incentive for private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” abortion services, handing a frightening legal tool to abusers who want to maintain further control over their partners.
Idaho’s House Bill 242 criminalizes anyone aiding a pregnant minor traveling to another state for an abortion. Originally passed in 2019 and brought to life after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, Alabama’s “Human Life Protection Act,” HB 314, gives the state the right to charge doctors with a Class A felony, resulting in life in prison without the possibility of parole. The threats to advocates are evident.
Even basic contraception is under attack. For example, Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird quietly notified advocates for sexual and domestic violence survivors that the state victim compensation funds would no longer cover contraception and abortion care for rape survivors. It doesn’t end there: Nine states have restricted access to emergency contraception.
Some argue that exceptions for abortion in instances of rape and incest address the needs of survivors in abortion-hostile states. Let’s not be naive. Given the low reporting and conviction rates for sexual assault and incest, the need to verify such violations for purposes of accessing abortion services is unthinkable.
Only 25 percent of survivors report rape or other acts of violence to law enforcement. Survivors often experience tremendous barriers to disclosure: They frequently face disbelief and denial from family and law enforcement, and lack access to supportive services.
The trauma of physical violation is just one aspect of what a rape survivor faces. The University of California San Francisco’s 2020 “Turnaway Study” highlights that individuals who are denied abortions are less likely to cut off contact with an abusive partner and more likely to remain or fall into poverty. For abuse victims, having to stay with an abusive partner can mean enduring decades of violence and even increased risk of homicide.
That’s why legislation like SB 345 in California is so crucial. SB 345 is a stance against the tyrannical state legislation we are seeing passed across the nation. It brings together the anti-violence and reproductive justice movements at a critical time when we are experiencing rollbacks in our fundamental human rights daily. SB 345 will lead the nation in setting a standard for other states to adopt until we see Congress pass a federal baseline protection for abortion access.
With more than 20 sexual and domestic violence organizations supporting SB 345, we are sending one loud and clear message: Survivor justice is reproductive justice, and we are joining the fight.
Sandra Henriquez is the CEO of ValorUS®, a California-based, national anti-sexual violence organization and California’s sexual assault coalition.