A Utah lawmaker and her sister at odds: Should rape victims need to contact police before getting an abortion?
Rep. Kera Birkeland says her bill focuses on rape victim services and holding rapists accountable. But her sister, a rape survivor, says it strips away choices
Both sisters had tears in their eyes.
Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, sat in her office at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City.
On the other side of the Salt Lake Valley, her younger sister by 10 years, Samantha Hansen, sat in the kitchen of her Herriman home.
Some 40 miles separated the two while they spoke individually to the Deseret News on Thursday — but their vast differences over an issue that hits far too close to home for their family is immeasurable.
The issue? Abortion access and services for rape victims in Utah — an issue that’s slated to heat up in coming days and weeks on Utah’s Capitol Hill as a bill proposed by Birkeland, along with a slate of other abortion-related bills, make their way through the Utah Legislature.
Birkeland insists her bill is more about expanding services to rape victims and holding rapists accountable than it is about restricting abortion.
“It doesn’t force women to do anything,” Birkeland said. “It provides resources to women, and it really does seek to hold the perpetrators accountable.”
But her sister — who has for years publicly shared her sexual assault story of how she was drugged and raped in 2014 — disagrees.
“It is absolutely cruel to rape survivors,” Hansen, 30, said. “It is not going to accomplish what my sister claims she wants it to accomplish.”
Birkeland said if people “actually took the time” to read the bill, they’ll find “this gives women options and choices in the most dire circumstances” by expanding access to emergency contraception, mental health and medical services while also encouraging women to go to law enforcement.
“I can’t express enough that we can’t continue to let men walk free because it only creates more victims,” Birkeland said. “And that’s a hard balance, I understand, but we’ve got to try to strike it in a way that’s humanizing and compassionate toward women.”
Hansen said she has indeed read the bill that was released just last week, and she’s prepared to fight it tooth and nail because she worries it will have more unintended consequences — and do more harm than good — if it’s approved. She sat down with the Deseret News to share her perspective as a rape survivor.
“My sister is trying to force women to heal the way she thinks they should heal,” she said. “She’s trying to package it up as a survivor’s bill. And as a survivor, it is not.”
What would HB297 do?
At the heart of this conflict is HB297, a bill Birkeland has drafted to be considered by the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature this year. She hopes the bill will be heard in a House committee as early as next week.
With HB297, Birkeland wants to expand services for rape victims while also reinforcing an existing requirement that medical providers, before performing an abortion, first verify the rape was in some way reported to law enforcement.
While Utah’s trigger law that would ban all abortions (with exemptions) is on hold as it’s challenged in court, Utah’s current law bans abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, or when the fetus has a brain defect or abnormality.
Birkeland stresses that Utah’s current abortion law, HB136 — and the trigger law — already requires physicians to verify the rape has been reported to law enforcement. Her bill, however, would also completely strip out Utah’s rape exemption after 18 weeks of pregnancy.
While it would take effect regardless of what happens to Utah’s trigger law in court, Birkeland has written HB297 with the assumption that the trigger law will take effect. Under Utah’s current abortion ban, rape victims do not need to seek an exemption to get an abortion up until 18 weeks of pregnancy. But if her bill does pass, they wouldn’t be able to get an abortion after 18 weeks.
The current version of the bill would require the woman receiving the abortion to give the physician “a copy of the case report by the applicable law enforcement agency” or “sign a certification that the woman reported to law enforcement the incident.”
However, Birkeland also has proposed amendments that would remove those specifics and only require the physician to “maintain an accurate record as to the manner in which the physician conducted the verification,” as well as report the information to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Birkeland argues her bill doesn’t overburden rape victims because the woman wouldn’t be required to press charges, and the reporting requirement could be met by a simple phone call to law enforcement.
“We don’t have particular answers to what should be the proper way to do it,” Birkeland said, noting that law enforcement officials often want to open a case file because they usually want to investigate and “go after these guys. But for some women, they may just call in and say, ‘Hey, I was raped, here’s my information,’ and then they want nothing to do with it ever again.”
“We just need to understand how women are most comfortable reporting it so we can make sure that we’re facilitating the best services to meet their needs,” Birkeland said.
Last year, abortion providers and legal experts told the Deseret News the ambiguity in the language in Utah’s trigger abortion law created uncertainty about how a physician would need to “verify” a rape has been reported to law enforcement before legally being able to carry out an abortion under the exemption for rape and incest. That uncertainty could create a chilling effect for providers, as well as make enforcement or prosecution of illegal abortions difficult.
Birkeland said the bill “simply just asks that the providers let Health and Human Services know in their report of how they verified.”
“I really don’t think anyone’s trying to limit the access of abortions because of cases of rape. We just want to make sure that we’re using every means possible to come after the perpetrators,” Birkeland said. “If they’re not going to law enforcement and they haven’t gone to law enforcement, it really hinders law enforcement’s ability to put these offenders behind bars.”
The bill would come with an estimated cost of about $100,000, Birkeland said, to help “spread the word” about already existing sexual assault victim services.
It would require sexual assault hotline providers to “maintain a policy that encourages the sexual assault hotline to provide, when applicable, a victim of sexual assault with information” on how to access free emergency contraception, law enforcement, and medical and mental health services.
“It ensures that all the victims of sexual assault in our state have access to free resources,” Birkeland said, including emergency contraception such as the Plan B pill, which she said “will be available within 48 hours after a sexual assault.”
“We want to make sure every woman who’s been raped understands that, that can come at no cost to them,” she said.
The bill would also provide mental health therapy to sexual assault victims, as well as health care to rape victims throughout their pregnancies and for a year of the child’s life “should she choose to carry out the pregnancy,” Birkeland said.
“I am not just pro birth. I am pro life for the entire life,” she said. “And we need to do more.”
Additionally, the bill would direct all law enforcement agencies to create a policy “on how they’re going to investigate cases of rape and sexual assault,” Birkeland said, as well as a requirement to report the number of cases annually to the State Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Plus, the bill would require annual law enforcement training to include instruction on “trauma-informed responses and investigations of sexual assault and sexual abuse,” according to the current version of the bill.
“I know — I know — that if we give (women) the strength, if we give them the help that they need ... that they’ll have the ability to come forward,” Birkeland said. “And the strength that they will feel and the empowerment of seeing the justice that will help them heal so much more than never knowing if they’re going to run into their perpetrator down the street. I want that for them.”
‘Choice was everything’
In 2014, when Hansen said she was drugged and raped by someone she thought was a friend, she got pregnant as a result.
“I talked to Planned Parenthood and I got my options and I made the choice before I miscarried that I was not going to abort,” she said.
“Being able to make that choice was everything (for) my healing, to make that choice,” Hansen said. “If a woman can’t file a police report because she mentally, just simply cannot, that is a very real thing. ... Her bill is effectively stripping them of the choice.”
Hansen said her own mental state in the first several months after her rape was “anything but stable. I attempted to commit suicide on multiple occasions. And it’s honestly a miracle I’m still here today.”
Hansen said it took her six months before she was able to tell her own mother. And it wasn’t until a year later that she went to police — not to press charges, knowing the DNA evidence was long gone.
She said she did it because “my pure simple hope was that if the next girl came forward sooner than I did, is braver than me, that our stories would mesh just enough that they could tie her story and my story and maybe I could help her nail him.”
Even if Birkeland’s bill wouldn’t require the woman to press charges, a call to police is far from an easy task for a rape victim, Hansen said.
“I still had to relive the teeniest, tiniest detail about what happened to me,” she said. “And I knew why ... because the smallest detail might help the next person. But that was incredibly hard a year later. There is absolutely no way I could have done that shortly thereafter.”
Hansen said it’s beyond unreasonable to force rape victims to go to law enforcement before accessing abortion, adding that it can take months if not years for them to be ready to grapple with the trauma, let alone explain it to a police officer. “Sometimes you can’t even admit it to yourself,” she said.
She questioned why her sister can’t expand victim services while allowing them access to abortions with no strings attached.
“Anytime you go to a woman that has already had all of her choices, all of her rights, all of her freedoms stripped from her, and try to tell her more about what she can and cannot do and how she has to go about healing, that is not in her best interest,” Hansen said.
Hansen also argued Birkeland’s bill won’t collect data or hold rapists accountable. “That isn’t really going to happen the way she thinks it will. The idea is flawed at best.”
First of all, if a woman has the financial means to get an abortion in a nearby state, like Colorado or Nevada, she’ll go that route rather than jump through Utah’s hoops, Hansen said. “Therefore, she doesn’t get her data.”
Secondly, if women aren’t able to leave the state, “they will attempt at-home abortions that are extremely dangerous,” she said. “Again, she won’t have her data.”
Hansen also pointed to studies that have shown an estimated 90% of sexual assault victims know their attacker, adding that in most cases rapes are committed by intimate parters, and reporting that person to law enforcement could put the victim’s safety at risk. Hansen said Birkeland’s bill could also make more women in already desperate situations feel even more trapped — and could lead to suicide.
“My sister wants numbers, she will get them,” she said. “But they’ll be suicide numbers.”
As Utah restricts abortions, Hansen said she’s also worried it will lead to an uptick in false reports of rapes in order to access abortions. If that happens, “it will make it even harder for women like me and other true survivors to come forward if that is what they are willing and ready to do.”
“I’ve spoken to many survivors,” Hansen said. “Every single one of them, male or female, has told me that the main reason they didn’t go to their friend, their family, the police, was because they were afraid they wouldn’t be believed.”
Pointing to the case of Brock Turner at Stanford University and his light sentence, Hansen said rape victims often themselves question “what’s the point” in going to police and the courts.
“If a woman is hurting, is scarred, is in a horrible place, then I hope to God no woman that I know and love ever goes through more than they already have,” Hansen said. “(So) why on Earth are we going to make her life so much harder and so much worse and force her to also not be believed?”
She said it’s “fantastic” if her sister wants to work with law enforcement to improve accountability for rapists, but she argued dangling access to abortion isn’t the right route to do so.
“We need to be working long and hard on how we handle police reports, on how we prosecute rapists, before we ever start messing with rights of women who have gone through such a traumatic event,” Hansen said.
While the lawsuit over Utah’s trigger law plays out in court, Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, issued a statement Thursday opposing Birkeland’s bill, even with potential amendments.
“While this bill purports to protect survivors of sexual assault, it will actually do the opposite and discourage them from getting the care they may need,” Galloway said. “Requiring a police report to receive an abortion is not trauma informed, not supported by evidence, and could result in re-traumatizing survivors. It could also result in immediate safety risks.”
Galloway continued: “This bill burdens survivors of sexual assault with unnecessary and harmful restrictions on their personal autonomy and privacy. The current amendments do not sufficiently alleviate those harms.”
Sisters at odds
Birkeland said she and her sister could not differ more — “philosophical, political, religious, every difference you can think of, we have it, and that’s OK.”
But Birkeland said she’d “rather not really dwell on her comments or her position. She has a right to have them.”
However, Birkeland called her sister’s public opposition to her bill “unfortunate,” and said that she wishes it wouldn’t overshadow the policy discussion.
“A lot of families have their family disputes. You don’t get along with a sibling. You don’t agree on an issue,” Birkeland said. “I think in this case because I’m a quote-unquote public figure our disagreement is being blown up into something much bigger than it is.”
“I wish — and victims advocates have expressed — that we could actually just stick to the points of this legislation,” she continued. “It will help women. We need to change the narrative of society and the acceptance that guys can just molest and sexually attack a woman, and we’re just supposed to move on and get over it and we don’t get any help to actually overcome it.”
In response to concerns that her bill would corner women into grappling with something they may not be ready for in order to access an abortion, Birkeland said, “There’s a lot of misconceptions, and that is one of them.”
“This doesn’t push women into doing anything. It is 100% a woman’s right to decide how she wants to go about this,” Birkeland said. If the woman gets mental health and medical services, then “most likely she’ll have the strength and the support to move forward with pressing charges so that ultimately we can get those guys off the streets,” Birkeland said.
“Because the more we just allow men to do what they’re doing, because women aren’t getting resources and they don’t have the support behind them to come forward,” she said, “the more we’re just encouraging more men to do this.”
Birkeland also said she has her own personal experience with sexual assault, but she declined to elaborate on details, adding that’s “something I’m working through.”
“It is personal to me because I know how hard it is to come forward when you’ve been attacked,” she said. “It’s something that I have dealt with, even in the last two years of my life. And you don’t think anyone’s going to believe you. You don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker. You want to almost ignore it. But we can’t anymore. And we have to let women know that you’re not going to have to fight it alone.”
Hansen said any form of sexual assault is “extremely unfortunate” and shouldn’t be minimized, but “unless that sexual assault has included rape ... rape is a whole other level.”
“Until you live it, you don’t understand,” she said. “If your true goal is to assist women in this situation, you need to have walked a mile in their shoes.”
Hansen added her sister “can absolutely use her experience to empathize with us, those of us who have survived actual rape, but ... she doesn’t know. And I’m thankful she doesn’t.”
Asked about her sister’s experience, Birkeland said “any woman who has experienced rape” has lived through “one of the most violent acts that a woman could ever endure.”
“And it’s so hard for me because it kills me to know that it happened to a family member,” Birkeland said, choking back tears. “And to see that twisted, a decade later, for self promotion and how heartbreaking that was and is, is really frustrating.”
“Instead of trying to fight with her on how she views my thoughts and my feelings, I’d rather just go forward and do work that helps women,” Birkeland said. “Because we can’t change the past. We can only try and make things better in the future.”
Hansen bristled at the accusation that she’s publicly opposing her sister’s bill for media attention. She paused, her eyes brimming. She took a moment to collect herself before continuing. As she spoke, tears streamed down her face.
In 2015, when she first published her blog detailing her rape, “I ended that blog by saying as long as there is breath in my lungs, I vow to be a voice for those who are too afraid to speak.” Hansen said. “And that is exactly what I am doing today.”