Jun 28, 2022 - News

Utah's abortion ban could erase rape victims' options

Illustration of a row of standing gavels set up and toppling like dominoes

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Rape victims could struggle to get abortions under Utah's pending ban — and those who get them could have a harder time seeking justice for the assault.

Driving the news: A rape victim may obtain an abortion only if their doctor "verifies" they have reported the crime to police.

Why it matters: The reporting requirement bars the vast majority of rape victims from getting an abortion.

  • Only about one in five sexual assault victims report the crime, according to a state health report.

Context: Survivors have a lot of reasons for not reporting to police.

  • A 2021 study found that even people who sought a forensic exam did not report it to police because they were ashamed and didn't want others to find out about the assault.
  • They also anticipated being blamed or not believed, or they knew their assailant and didn't want them to go to jail.
  • Perpetrators often groom or threaten victims to prevent them from going to police, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told Axios.

Zoom in: For people who do report to police, the law does not specify how a doctor is to verify the police statement.

  • "Are we expecting victims to show up with police reports in their hands as they go talk to their doctors?" Gill asked during an interview with Axios.
  • Public records laws allow Utahns to request police reports — but departments don't have to respond immediately, appeals can take months, and a doctor may not be able to obtain them independently.
  • In Davis County, for example, a victim would need to coordinate the records' release to a doctor because the county treats victims' names as protected information, county attorney Troy Rawlings confirmed to Axios.

Meanwhile: If a victim does report the assault before getting an abortion, it could make their case difficult to prosecute.

  • Research shows the public and police drastically overestimate the prevalence of false rape allegations — even when there is little incentive for a victim to lie.
  • If someone reports a rape right before getting an abortion, "it's going to be an issue that defendants will raise and raise aggressively" to suggest the complaint was fabricated, Rawlings said.

Yes, but: A case may still have enough proof to file charges, even if a jury could see the abortion as incentive for a false report.

  • "We'll have to factor that into the decision-making," Rawlings said. "I don't want to say that's going to be an obstacle that's so hard to overcome that we would shy away from prosecuting cases. … But the defense will try to latch onto that and do what they can with it."

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