Back when she could barely read, Grace McGarry would go into her mother’s room, bypass the children’s books, and head straight for Our Bodies, Ourselves—a 193-page book about reproductive health, which included information on abortion. “This was my thing,” said McGarry, now in her thirties and with some 17 years of working in rape crisis centers and abortion clinics under her belt. “It was universally agreed by anybody who knew me when I was young.”
As she grew older, McGarry kept reading everything she could find about gendered violence and began working with survivors when she was still in high school. Then, just weeks before senior year ended, she was a victim of a sexual assault and attempted rape.
Today, McGarry is in her home state of Texas, which she loves but which also keeps her busy. She’s the first point of contact at Whole Woman’s Health, a reproductive health care clinic, where she answers a catch-all phone line for people trying to get an abortion and generally wrestle with what is going on. “The ink isn’t even dry, and already I have patients who are being denied care,” she told me last week.
The Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, the decades-old federal protection for those seeking abortions. While Roe has not safeguarded people equally in the coordinated onslaught anti-abortion groups and officials have waged against people who can get pregnant, its end signals to hostile states that they can force virtually anyone to carry to term. In his majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.” Alito’s opinion, meanwhile, makes no reference to “rape,” “sexual assault,” “uterus,” or “health care.”
In the moments after Roe fell, Texas Governor Greg Abbott was thrilled. “The U.S. Supreme Court correctly overturned Roe v. Wade,” he said. “Texas is a pro-life state, and we have taken significant action to protect the sanctity of life.” Roe falling leaves the door open for Abbott to further intensify the state’s already historic ban on abortion after only six weeks of pregnancy. These restrictions, from Austin’s to the Supreme Court’s, allow ample room for rape and incest exceptions to be sidelined. Texas has a trigger law in place banning nearly all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest, that will take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court’s decision.
Abbott defended his anti-abortion bill’s lack of exceptions, in part, because the state will “eliminate rape,” and Senator Ted Cruz has compared rape survivors to someone who drinks and then electrocutes themselves. On Friday, Cruz said the Dobbs decision was “nothing short of a massive victory for life.” “Roe was wrong the day it was decided,” he continued, “and it has been wrong every day since then.”
But it’s not just abortion clinics that will be affected by the Dobbs decision. It will have a “chilling effect that ripples out far beyond just people who actually are doing [abortion] clinic work,” McGarry said. “It goes way, way beyond that.” In particular, advocates told me, it will hurt rape crisis centers, which provide emergency contraception, forensic exams, counseling, and sexual education—while also advocating for justice for survivors, including ending the immense backlog of rape kits across the country. The survivors, workers, and advocates I spoke to are concerned that, as abortion is restricted, people with uteruses may face less access to other basic medical care and may be deterred from reporting their abusers or undergoing rape testing, lest it be used against them if they ever become pregnant and wish to terminate.
Meanwhile, these clinics are also targets of right-wing misinformation, which they then must expend resources to combat. Their task thus is twofold: to dispel accusations about what they are not doing and defend the breadth of what they are doing for people, particularly those who can get pregnant.
Wendy Hanna is the executive director at the Turning Point in Plano, Texas, which works with sexual assault survivors—from providing immediate medical care after an act of violence to long-term counseling, education, and advocacy. The clinic does not, in any way, shape, or conjecture, perform abortions. And yet her organization has faced the ire of anti-abortion politicians.
In 2019, Hanna said, she “innocently” invited Anthony Ricciardelli, Plano’s deputy mayor pro tem at the time, to tour her clinic. Since the city provides a good chunk of funding for the organization, she saw it as an opportunity to show off the work they were doing to support survivors. (She said her clinic is just one of three in the state where sexual assault exams, or rape kits, are offered on site.) This is crucial care, particularly in the labyrinth that is reporting sexual assault in this country. “We’re talking about the clinic, and the next thing I know, they’re trying to slim down our funding and take it away!” she said.
After the tour, Ricciardelli threatened to withhold $57,542 from the Turning Point because it administered Plan B, an emergency contraception medication. “The Plan B pill destroys a human life,” Ricciardelli claimed, despite reassurance from the Food and Drug Administration that it only prevents pregnancy and does not work on those who are already pregnant.
Even when the Turning Point’s funding was at risk, Hanna didn’t back down. “Our clinic does dispense Plan B,” Hanna said, proudly. Workers offer the pill if the assault happened within the efficacious hours and the victim wants it. “They have to want it.” It’s worth noting that these public funds cannot go toward medication. The money provided from the city of Plano, according to Hanna, went solely into their counseling program for rape survivors.
What ensued next still bewilders Hanna, and infuriates her: private meetings with council members, attempts to regulate what brands of emergency contraception were permissible, and presentations by medical experts, all of which redirected time and resources away from doing the job of supporting survivors. “If I start acquiescing to these little demands over and over,” she thought, “then I am no better than they are.”
After hours of convincing, Hanna and the Turning Point secured funding, allowing them to continue to provide trauma-informed care. “I could never have imagined that happening,” she told me. “I kept thinking, ‘So what’s next?’”
While the future of women’s rights and reproductive health is opaque across the country, some conservative lawmakers have already begun pushing for a ban on emergency contraception and certain forms of birth control. With Roe overturned, about half of U.S. states are expected to ban abortion. When the nation’s most restrictive abortion bills are signed into effect, the news lands especially hard on those who have had abortions and those who know what it is like to have their bodily autonomy taken, forcefully, from them.
Anne is a mother of two young women who writes a blog about impostor syndrome among marathon runners, her favorite vegan food, being a physical therapist, and healing as a survivor of childhood sexual assault. She recalled the morning she heard the news about Texas’s ban, when she only had a few minutes for breakfast before running out the door. Then her phone lit up.
“I just sobbed—like I just couldn’t. I was shaking. I couldn’t help that visceral response. And then I had to get my shit together and drive myself to work,” she said from a parking lot in Virginia. At work, visibly upset as co-workers discussed the news, she ended up divulging the details of her story: groomed at the age of 9 by a teenager; mistrusted by those meant to protect her. Anne told me that with every new restriction on choice, she plays the what-ifs in her mind: What if she had been just a little older at the time of her assault, able to get pregnant, and unable to decide what was best for her? “When I got that notification, I just started hyperventilating and [had] this overwhelming sense of dread and heartache for other children who would not have a choice,” she said.
The loss of access to contraception and abortion would be debilitating for survivors, said Juliana Gonzales, the senior director of sexual assault services at the Texas-based SAFE Alliance.
“When our staff found out that there would be restrictions in Texas on referring or supporting folks who need abortion care, it was immediately clear to those who work here what a huge impact this would have on the survivors we serve,” Gonzales cautioned. “They desperately need, as part of their healing journey, to restore their control over their own body.”
More than a third of women in Texas have been sexually assaulted (the numbers for Black and Hispanic women specifically are even higher). Rape crisis centers, like SAFE, provide both immediate and long-term care for these survivors. The former can often take place in the hours and days following an event, whether it be a singular or chronic occurrence. The latter, long-term and continual care, is critical for those experiencing intimate partner violence, defined by exerting perennial control.
Additionally, because these clinics work with those experiencing reproductive coercion—the intentional domineering of another person’s reproductive choices through physical, psychological, sexual, or financial means—they exist squarely at the intersection of advocating for survivors and advocating for people who can get pregnant. Gonzales described this space as one where “the sex may be consensual, or at least from a legal standpoint, but [a person’s] access to contraception or abortion services is restricted by someone who’s controlling them.”
Taking away access to local, safe, affordable, accessible abortion clinics means leaving organizations like the SAFE Alliance with few phone numbers to give out. In other words, if a woman becomes pregnant through reproductive coercion and reaches out to a rape crisis center for solutions on how to potentially terminate that pregnancy, there soon may be no places for them to refer the patient. “I’m not sure where rape survivors would access the services even if they could navigate that system,” Gonzales said. “By losing access to those important services for everyone,” she continued, “we’re also losing them for survivors.”
When I asked Hanna, of the Turning Point, if she was preparing for her clinic to face increased pressure and regulation, she replied, “It could happen. Nothing would surprise me right now, quite honestly.”
In the wake of this uncertainty, Gonzales is trying to weigh immediate needs with preparing for what’s on the horizon. “I do think it’s important to be realistic and prepare for the possibility that restrictions on people’s reproductive health services could continue. And it seems clear at this point that there is going to be no difference in how those restrictions are handled for survivors of sexual violence.”
Working on justice for survivors necessitates holding your breath for the next restriction while doing the work of protecting those who have, are, or may soon be victims. It’s not an easy balance, as Grace McGarry knows from her job and her experience with violence. After McGarry escaped her attempted rape, still coming to terms with what had happened, she went away to college, didn’t tell anyone for years, got a gender studies degree, and kept doing the work she always knew she would. Even after all these years, knowing how to do this work legally, practically, and effectively, McGarry told me, is “like trying to walk in a straight line on the ground during an earthquake”—an earthquake that, following the Supreme Court decision, “got a hell of a lot stronger.”