And teens are uniquely vulnerable.
Warning: This story contains a discussion of intimate partner abuse and suicidal ideation.
“Without [my abortion], I literally would not be here now,” says Zoe*, 21. At 17, she got pregnant while in a relationship with an abusive partner who coerced her into sex and made contraception her problem to deal with. “If I was forced to be pregnant and not have an abortion, I probably would have stayed with him for the rest of my life,” she admits. “I probably would just become a husk.” If she didn’t have her abortion in 2018, she says, she was willing to consider suicide. “There [were] no other options for me.” For her, getting an abortion wasn’t just about straightforward reproductive autonomy — it also meant being able to leave her partner.
For the past two months, millions of people in Texas have been grappling with the reality of heavily restricted abortion access. On Sept. 1, 2021, one of the nation’s most repressive anti-abortion laws went into effect: Senate Bill 8 (SB8). The legislation prohibits nearly all abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected (around six weeks gestation), which is before most people even realize they’re pregnant. The law also makes “no exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal anomaly,” per advocacy group Avow Texas. Abortion rights activists have warned that the law amounts to a near-total ban on abortion care in the state, and in the month after the law went into effect, the number of abortions in the state dropped by half, per a study from UT Austin. This is all bad enough for people who can get pregnant. But for young people in situations like Zoe’s, there’s an additional danger: abusive partners could use it against them.
“[My partner] would guilt trip me into having unprotected sex,” she recalls of her relationship, which happened in her late teens. “He was so forceful with me.” He’d claim she owed him access to her body because she aroused him, even when she’d say no. “He didn’t care. He would just beg and beg and I would just give up,” she says. While they were using birth control when she got pregnant, the condom broke and she wasn’t able to get emergency contraception in time. When she found out she was pregnant, she says, she “had a mental breakdown.”
Abusers love to use your family, your friends, your support system against you.
If Zoe needed an abortion now as a minor under SB8, she says, the best friends who supported her during that time would’ve been in danger of facing legal retaliation from her ex-partner. “I can bet you a million dollars that he was going to be able to use my friend helping me as a reason for me to not get an abortion. Because if I got the abortion, she could have been sued. By him,” Zoe says.
SB8 operates on a private-enforcement structure, which allows private citizens to enforce the law by suing and collecting at least a $10,000 “bounty” against anyone who “performs, aids, or abets” a ban-violating abortion. Per the acting president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Adrienne Kimmell, this could include friends, fundraiser organizers, or even the Uber driver who drops a patient off at a clinic. “Not only for the person seeking abortion care, but for just folks — again, a clergy [member], a friend, family — that chilling effect is really dramatic,” she previously told Elite Daily. For those involved in abusive relationships with their partners, this portion of the law is particularly harmful, because abortion care can often be a critical step in escaping a dangerous domestic environment — and support structures are a crucial step in accessing abortion care.
“Abusers love to use your family, your friends, your support system against you, and to separate you [from] them more,” Zoe explains. Under SB8, they have a new tool to threaten, blackmail, and isolate their target from their support networks. “Then, all of a sudden you don't have any support system because you've distanced yourself from them. Not on purpose, but because your abusive partner [wants it]. Perfect breeding grounds for even worse things, like awful domestic violence.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen dating violence isn’t uncommon: approximately 26% of women and 15% of men who experienced “contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime first experienced these or other forms of violence by that partner before age 18.” Meanwhile, 1 in 8 high school girls report having experienced sexual dating violence within the past year.
“Teens are already in a vulnerable position” when it comes to accessing reproductive care, says Desireé Luckey, director of policy at Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE). Pregnant teens are legally allowed to give birth and be a parent, but not legally allowed to access abortion care without parental consent in Texas. Because they don’t have full bodily autonomy as minors, teens are more likely to know someone who’s “trying to prevent them from accessing the decisions and the care they [need].”
Preventing a partner from making their own reproductive choices — including coercing them into unsafe sex or pressuring them about abortion care — is a type of abuse called reproductive coercion. “Sexual and reproductive coercion is a significant form of power and control used by those causing harm in domestic violence relationships,” Christina So, communications director for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, tells Elite Daily. “[It] includes restricting a partner from seeing a health care provider, or not allowing them to make critical decisions for themselves, including the decision to use contraceptives, [or] get tested or treated for STIs.” It also includes, she says, “threatening to report or bring a suit against a partner seeking reproductive health care ... and thereby restricting their access [to] safe and legal abortion.” A 2019 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology found that among sexually active high school girls, around 12% reported reproductive coercion within the previous three months.
Zoe’s partner was barely involved with her abortion — except to issue a threat. "He would be really mad if the ‘baby’ — fetus — was a male and I aborted our only chance of ever having a son,” she recalls him telling her.
Throughout her entire abortion process, the only real support Zoe received was from her friends and the reproductive rights organization Jane’s Due Process, which helps teens navigate — and legally bypass, as needed — Texas’ parental consent requirement for abortions. “I was very alone, but I was able to talk to my best friend about it,” she says. “She pulled up a hotline for Jane’s Due Process, and that’s how I was able to get an abortion,” she adds. “Without Jane’s Due Process, I don’t know how I would’ve navigated through all these things. They helped me set up everything,” and they even helped cover the majority of the abortion procedure’s costs. Because of Jane’s Due Process, Zoe was able to get her abortion at just over six weeks in early 2018 — which still wouldn’t have been soon enough under SB8.
[Sb8’s] sort of fear-mongering is what keeps people from seeking the care they need.
Because of SB8’s private-enforcement structure, critical abortion care networks are now in danger of legal retaliation from, well, just about anyone willing to pursue a civil lawsuit. As a result, advocates and aid organizations like Jane’s Due Process, Lilith Fund, TEA Fund, and more must work carefully to ensure they’re helping people within the parameters of the law. “I am somewhat intimidated by the whole situation,” HK Gray, an advocate and abortion storyteller with Jane’s Due Process, previously told Elite Daily. “There's been an increased level of awareness that the potential [for danger as an advocate] is much more likely now than it was before.”
According to Luckey, the law’s bounty is working as intended: “This whole law is about fear-mongering,” she says. The fear brought on by SB8’s private-enforcement structure, she notes, can further isolate abuse victims from the support systems they need to escape situations of domestic violence. “If you feel like ‘I can't turn to anyone in my life anyway,’” she adds, “[and] the one person who might be able to help could get in trouble too, that sort of fear-mongering is what keeps people from seeking the care they need.”
Despite the risks to advocates under the new SB8 law, Zoe has every intention of helping other teens, the way others once helped her. In 2018, Zoe joined Deeds Not Words, a community advocacy program dedicated to defending reproductive rights, where she does legislative research and shares her experiences as an abortion storyteller. The fight is ongoing: On Nov. 1, the Supreme Court heard a pair of challenges to Texas’ abortion law, both centered around the bounty that enforces it. It’s unclear when — or how — the court will rule on the law. “We need to see a change in Texas, and I think organizations like Deeds Not Words and other nonprofits and abortion funds are going to change our future,” Zoe says. “I truly do believe we will continue fighting the fight until we win.”
“Talking about the end of my abortion story always gives me this great wave of happiness,” she says. “There’s so [many] things in life I’m doing now that I’m only able to do because I had my abortion.”
*Names have been changed to protect subjects’ anonymity.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.