A bill that would ban the sale of at-home, do-it-yourself rape kits in Utah unanimously passed committee Friday.
Critics labeled the DIY kits as “false hope” and listed concerns about whether these products fully served survivors’ needs and could be admitted in court, while the kits’ creators argued they provided an alternative option for victims who did not want to go to law enforcement.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who proposed HB 168, said she has spent her career focused on giving survivors a voice.
“By allowing them to think that they can use this home kit and get resolution from it, I feel like I’ve done them an injustice,” Romero said in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee hearing Friday afternoon.
In fall 2019, groups in the Beehive State, including the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Rape Recovery Center and Wasatch Forensic Nurses joined national organizations in opposing the at-home kits, calling the products “exploitive” and “misleading.” Multiple state attorneys general sent cease and desist letters to companies selling the products.
After the backlash, “these companies pulled back,” said Julie Valentine, a member of Wasatch Forensic Nurses and an associate professor at Brigham Young University College of Nursing. But “with the emergence of COVID,” as some people were nervous about going to hospitals, the DIY kits reemerged, she said. During the coronavirus pandemic, though, forensic nurses in Utah adjusted where they provided exams, according to Valentine, moving to places like clinics when a hospital setting wasn’t available.
“The problem with these [DIY kits] is when an individual is victimized by rape, health care is incredibly important. ... That is our number one,” Valentine said. “We then give them the choice if they want to have evidence collected in a sexual assault kit.”
During the free exam, forensic nurses document patients’ injuries, according to Valentine.
“We also provide medications to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. We have advocates with us. We give them resources for follow-up care,” she said.
But “if you have a victim who is at home that does one of these kits, they do not get any of these services,” Valentine said.
These DIY kits would be inadmissible in court in Utah, according to Will Carlson, of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
“Not everything should be a DIY project, and these companies are preying for profit on victims who have been exposed to a situation where they were robbed of control,” he said. “And the way that these companies are making money is by promising to give control back to them.”
“It’s a false promise,” though, according to Carlson. He argued this “should be criminalized.”
Romero’s bill, which is similar to legislation passed in New Hampshire last year, makes the sale an infraction, carrying a fine up to $500.
If the bill becomes law in the Beehive State, “survivors will be suppressed by a lack of options and reduced freedom of choice,” according to Madison Campbell, CEO of Leda Health. Leda Health was formerly down as MeToo Kits Company, one of the businesses scrutinized in 2019, according to Campbell’s LinkedIn page.
Campbell said she is a sexual assault survivor and understands why some people do not report an assault to law enforcement or seek traditional help “due to fears of retraumatization.”
Leda Health provides access to resources for STI detection and group therapy, according to Campbell. They are also adding virtual sexual assault examiners “to walk survivors through the process,” she said.
Jane Mason, who said she is a retired FBI special agent, also spoke against the bill. Mason founded PRESERVEkit, the other DIY rape kit business that received backlash, to help the many survivors who don’t initially want to report their sexual assault, she said.
The “hostility” Mason received in 2019 “bankrupted me,” she said, adding that she’s not currently “in business.”
Jeanlee Carver, president and clinical director for Northern Utah Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, called the bill “premature,” with more information needed about how the kits would work and possibly be used in investigations.
“Do I believe that the best service for victims is from a licensed, sexual assault nurse examiner? Absolutely,” Carver said. “But this doesn’t mean that after providing thousands of exams that I believe the state should deny these victims the options and power to control their own events after this experience.”
Liliana Olvera-Arbon, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she worried about survivors’ safety with DIY kits, including if the product was mailed to their home, where they may live with their perpetrator.
Olvera-Arbon also said there are also accessibility questions. The at-home kits assume a person “has access to all of their body parts and could move around in a way that they could collect this evidence,” she said. Also, she wondered what languages the resources and instructions would be provided in.
“At first glance, these exam kits may seem like a positive or no-harm alternative to a traditional forensic exam because of some fears associated with going to the hospital [and] potential interaction with law enforcement,” said Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, executive director of Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City.
”The reality is, these kits are harmful,” she said. “And our services in the state of Utah are highly collaborative and survivor centered,” and provide survivors options.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.