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Bioethics Forum Essay

Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault

Rape is prevalent in the United States: every 73 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted. With the surge of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, rapists and sexual abusers are being held accountable for their actions. However, many survivors are not receiving the justice they deserve.

For one thing, an estimated hundreds of thousands of rape kits are left unused, reducing the odds that the perpetrators will be identified and prosecuted. There are two main reasons:  some rape kits are never sent to the crime lab and some of those that are sent are never tested. When rape kits are used, many survivors are flooded with bills, in some cases for many years. This system is unethical and illegal.

The Violence Against Women Act requires states to provide free sexual assault forensic exams if they wish to remain eligible for some federal anticrime grants. While all states must provide standard forensic exams free of charge to receive this federal funding, some states do extra testing, such as for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and may charge survivors for those tests. In 2013, the average out-of-pocket cost for survivors was approximately $948. In some cases, these charges could be covered by insurance, but many survivors do not wish to file an insurance claim for privacy reasons. The issue is not only the cost of extra testing, but also that some hospitals illegally bill survivors for rape kits. 

Even in states that have laws requiring that survivors not be charged for additional tests, there have been violations. Last year, for example, seven hospitals in New York State were found to have illegally charged more than 200 patients up to $3,000 each for costs associated with sexual assault. These hospitals agreed to settlements for all these patients and to revising their billing procedures to prevent future illegal charges to sexual assault survivors. 

Several organizations, including RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), National Alliance to End Sexual Assault, and End the Backlog, are advocating for federal reforms and improvement of health care for those have experienced sexual assault. Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Texas, and Washington have established a rape kit tracking system for survivors, allowing them to know where and when their rape kits are being processed. In addition, Alaska and California have allocated millions of dollars for rape kit testing.

 Kamala Harris, the only presidential candidate who has addressed this issue, has proposed allocating $1 billion for states to use, as well as a variety of other measures to insure justice for survivors of sexual assault. Her plan also includes requiring states to agree to shorter testing timeframes and to provide an annual report of the number of tested rape kits in order to receive the money.

 Survivors of sexual assault should be able to receive necessary health care without worrying about being billed. My call to action is for the allocation of funds to states in order to maintain accountability, eliminate the backlog of rape kits, and prevent survivors from being illegally charged and suffering more than they already have. 

Nina Faynshtayn is a high school senior in West Hartford, Ct. She has conducted research on the #MeToo movement and advocated for state and federal legislation that supports women’s rights. 


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