The Current

Alabama anti-abortion legislation shows 'abysmal lack of knowledge' on trauma of sexual assault: survivor

We look at the implications of Alabama's new restrictions on abortion, which has no exceptions for rape or incest, unless the mother's life is in danger.

Dina Zirlott says she would have had abortion in order to save disabled daughter's suffering

Dina Zirlott's became pregnant after she was raped at 17. Her daughter Zoe was born severely disabled. (Submitted by Dina Zirlott)

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Alabama's virtual ban on abortion — including in cases of rape or incest — shows no understanding of what victims of sexual assault go through, a survior says.

"It's short-sighted, it's idealistic, and their imagination of what we should experience does not reflect our reality," Dina Zirlott told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Zirlott was raped in Alabama when she was 17, and discovered she was pregnant at the eight-month mark. The fetus had a brain condition "incompatible with life," but Zirlott was unable to obtain a late-term abortion because her own life was not directly in danger.

Her daughter Zoe was born severely disabled, and died one year later after "constant" suffering. Zirlott says she would have had an abortion to prevent that suffering.

"I would have sacrificed myself if it meant she could have suffered one less day."

On Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill to ban virtually all abortions in the state, unless the mother's life is in danger. As passed, the law would take effect in six months.

When pressed during the bill's debate on what would happen to a victim of incest, Republican State Sen. Clyde Chambliss said his hope is "that all young ladies would be educated by their parents, their guardians that should a situation like this occur, you need to go get help — you need to do it immediately."

Protesters against the anti-abortion bill, dressed as handmaids, at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala, last month. (Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP)

Zirlott said his comments show "an abysmal lack of knowledge about the nature of trauma for so many victims of assault."

"It effectively takes away your voice," she said. "The silence inserts itself into you and you can't always reach out and ask for help."

"It's just complete wilful ignorance on their behalf, to imagine that this bill helps those victims at all," she said.

Roe vs. Wade was 'an abomination'

The legislation that came from Roe vs. Wade is 'an abomination,' said Rick Renshaw, the political director for the The Alliance for a Pro-Life Alabama. (Submitted by Rick Renshaw)

Supporters of the legislation say it is intentionally designed to conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationally, because they hope to spark a court case that might prompt the justices to revisit abortion rights.

"It was a terrible law when it was passed, it's a terrible law now. It's an abomination," said Rick Renshaw, the political director for the Alliance for a Pro-Life Alabama, a coalition of groups opposed to abortion in the state.

The new legislation "protects the sanctity of unborn life," he said.

He argued that many people in Alabama were "elated" that the bill had been signed, and that years of work had "finally come to fruition."

"This is in a sense righting something that's been wrong for a long, long time."

Zirlott said that politicians and pro-life activists like Renshaw don't understand the grief and trauma that can come with pregnancy resulting from assault.

"[Renshaw] was not there for those nights I spent watching Zoe slowly suffer and die for a year in front of me," she said.

"The politicians who have passed this law can't even begin to comprehend the circumstances that we're coming to seek care under."

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington in January. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Wave of state bills

Lauren Rankin, a writer and pro-choice activist, said that several other states are also pursuing abortion restrictions, with bills "designed to challenge Roe vs. Wade, and have the Supreme Court eventually overturn it."

She explained that "with Brett Kavanaugh's appointment in the fall … the balance of power really shifted, and so now we have a 5-4 split in favour of conservative anti-abortion policies."

She told Tremonti that pro-choice activists are fighting the bills in court, but are worried that the Supreme Court "will use Alabama's total law, as sort of a straw man to say, 'This is too severe, we won't support that but we would support a six-week ban.'"

"Even if they don't actually overturn Roe vs. Wade, it is undeniable that this Supreme Court will allow seemingly more benign but more pernicious restrictions on abortion ... that will render legal abortion meaningless for millions of people."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Alison Masemann, Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.