AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - When Texas' new abortion law made no exceptions in cases of rape, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott defended it with an assurance: Texas would get to work eliminating rapes.
One year later, Lindsey LeBlanc is busy as ever helping rape victims in a college town outside Houston.
"The numbers have stayed consistently high," said LeBlanc, executive director of the Sexual Assault Resource Center in Bryan, near Texas A&M University. Despite hiring two additional counselors in the past six months, she still has a waitlist for victims.
"We are struggling to keep up with demand," she said.
The constant caseloads in Texas are another example of how Republicans have struggled to defend zero-exception abortion bans that are unpopular in public polling, have caused uproar in high-profile cases and are inviting political risk heading into November's midterm elections. A year since Texas' law went into effect in September 2021, at least a dozen states also have bans that make no exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
The absence of exceptions has caused divisions among Republicans, including in West Virginia, where a new law signed this month allows a brief window for rape and incest victims to obtain abortions only if they report to law enforcement first. Recently, South Carolina Republicans scuttled a proposed ban after failing to get enough GOP support.
"It really disgusts me," said Republican South Carolina state Sen. Katrina Shealy, ripping into her male colleagues on the floor of the state Senate.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, also of South Carolina, allowed exceptions under the proposed national abortion ban he introduced last week. The proposal has virtually no chance of passing, with even GOP leaders not immediately backing it, reflecting how Republicans have broadly struggled to navigate the issue of abortion with voters since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer.
Overwhelming majorities of voters think their state should generally allow abortion in specific cases, including rape, incest or if the health of the pregnant person is endangered. Even Republicans are seeing it as a line with some voters.
"It's a very gray issue," said Claudia Alcazar, the GOP chairwoman in Starr County along the Texas-Mexico border that has become a new political battleground after Republicans made big gains with more conservative Hispanic voters in 2020.
She said she knows those who are "hardcore, never have abortion for any reason, period. And then I have the other ones that are like, 'Well, you know, it depends.'"
In Texas, the blowback was swift when Abbott said last September: "Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets." Critics called it detached from reality. A sexual assault hotline in Houston has answered almost 4,800 calls through August this year - putting it on track to exceed last year's volume of 4,843.
As of this summer, all abortions were banned in Texas except if it would save a mother's life.
Asked what Abbott has done in the past year to eliminate rape, spokeswoman Renae Eze highlighted older measures to clear rape test kit backlogs, a law signed in June aimed at coordinating and expanding sexual assault resources and a task force his office that launched in his office in 2019 to address the issue.
"To prevent such heinous crimes before they happen, and to prosecute any criminals to the full extent of the law, Governor Abbott has aggressively fought against defunding the police and led bail reform efforts to prevent the release of dangerous criminals," Eze said in a statement.
More than 14,000 rape crimes have been reported in Texas since the law took effect last year, according to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety. That was slightly down from the year before and consistent with a decline in other violent crime figures across the state.
Crisis centers in Texas say the number of rape victims they've accompanied to hospitals for exams is rebounding since the pandemic restrictions kept advocates from entering. The Women's Center in Fort Worth has made more than 650 visits to counsel victims undergoing exams in the past year compared to about 340 in the year prior, said Alisha Mathenia, the assistant director of crisis services at the center.
The majority of sexual assaults are never reported to police, making any available data an incomplete picture. And about 8 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by a person known to the victim, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
"We're not talking about a large of number of rapists walking around on the street. That's a myth," said Democrat Donna Howard, a state representative in Austin who co-authored the bill creating Abbott's task force.
At The SAFE Alliance in Austin, where sexual assault victims can get exams and medical care at its Eloise House, senior director Juliana Gonzales said it's admirable for Texas to work on rape prevention. "But I also think it's important for the state to live in the reality that we have to respond to sexual assault," she said.
Stengle reported from Dallas.
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