During a press conference Tuesday, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott defended his state’s controversial new abortion law and misleadingly suggested it contains protections for victims of rape or incest.
Regarding the bill, a reporter asked, “Why force a rape or incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term?” to which Abbott responded, “It doesn’t require that at all, because obviously it provides at least 6 weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion.”
Facts First: Abbott’s response is misleading, at best. The law’s stipulation banning abortions after six weeks does not necessarily mean six weeks from the incident, in the case of rape or incest victims. Doctors date pregnancies from the first day of the individual’s last menstrual cycle not from ovulation or “conception.” As a result, under the new Texas law, those seeking abortions have less than six weeks to do so.
Melaney Linton, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast which operates six centers in the Greater Houston area, said in a statement, “Governor Abbott’s remarks prove once again why politicians with no basic understanding of reproductive health have no business legislating on these critical issues.
Jennifer Kerns, associate professor at University of California San Francisco and an OB-GYN, told CNN, “Saying that someone has six weeks to access abortion is completely misleading.”
“When we say six weeks pregnant what that actually means is six weeks from the last menstrual period, ” Kerns clarified. “So it doesn’t actually mean the person has been pregnant for six weeks.”
Abbott attempted to caveat his comments Tuesday by highlighting that “rape is a crime,” though the bill has no exception for it. Under SB8, the only possible exemption is for “medical emergency.” Otherwise, abortion is prohibited when a fetal heartbeat is detected, though the flickering identified as a fetal heartbeat on an ultrasound at that time is really just electrical activity and the sound is made by the ultrasound machine itself. Even at six weeks, doctors say an ultrasound is not detecting a functional heart. And it’s worth noting that the fetal heartbeat used as the abortion cutoff in this bill often occurs before people know they are pregnant.
According to Linton, “People with regular menstrual cycles do not even miss a period until they are four weeks pregnant, meaning that — at most — they have two weeks to get an abortion.”
However, Kerns pointed out that “many women have irregular periods, many women skip periods. So if we are talking about a window of essentially one week, and you’re one of these many unlucky people whose periods are not 28 days apart you could easily miss that window of time to detect a pregnancy.”
New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also pushed back on Abbott’s comments, noting that people can miss periods for reasons other than pregnancy, including stress, which could make it even more difficult to detect a pregnancy and schedule an abortion within the six-week window.
“Six weeks pregnant means two weeks late for your period,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “AC360” Tuesday evening. “And two weeks late on your period for any person – any person with a menstrual cycle – can happen if you’re stressed, if your diet changes or for really no reason at all. So you don’t have six weeks.”
Beyond the biological time constraints, rape and incest victims have to contend with other factors that could further shrink their window within which to receive an abortion.
Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a staff physician at the Planned Parenthood Center for Choice in Houston, said in a statement, “Survivors of rape and incest would be forced to grapple with the trauma and potentially decide to end a resulting pregnancy within days of the assault. Governor Abbott’s comments about rape and rapists are insensitive, uninformed, and out of touch with the reality of survivors’ experiences.”
For rape or incest victims, Linton said the condensed timeline under SB8 means they have “just days to learn they are pregnant, make a decision, find a provider, get an appointment, and secure the financial and logistical resources, all while dealing with the trauma of being assaulted.”
Even those who want an abortion and qualify for one under the new law may not be able to have the procedure within the window given other barriers to access, like cost and the state’s 24-hour mandatory waiting period. The waiting period can be waived if the person seeking the abortion lives at least 100 miles away from the nearest abortion provider, which is a possibility given the limited number of abortion centers in the state.
“Texas is a very geographically large state with very few abortion providers at all. And many people in Texas already live very far from an abortion provider,” Kerns said. “So when we talk about one week, for people who live in big cities, that may not sound like a short amount of time but for people who have to travel 300, 400 miles in order to access an abortion who can start to understand how burdensome this is.”