Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual assault. If you need to report or discuss a sexual assault, you can call the Rape & Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100.
Samantha Hansen has openly shared her sexual assault story for years, posting about it on her blog and as part of her platform when she competed for Miss Montana in 2016.
But until recently, there was one part of the story the 29-year-old new mom from Herriman kept to herself: “that I got pregnant when I was raped, that I went to Planned Parenthood to find out my options.”
Hansen’s experience isn’t uncommon, but her proximity to Utah’s abortion policy is.
After her sister, Republican state Rep. Kera Birkeland, announced in August that she is proposing a bill that would keep clinics from offering abortions to rape victims who can’t provide a law enforcement-generated case number, Hansen publicly shared that the sexual assault led to her becoming pregnant at 21.
Birkeland’s bill is currently labeled “Felony Reporting Requirements” on the Utah Legislature’s website. It’s one of four abortion-related bills already opened for the upcoming legislative session.
Although its text isn’t yet available, if the legislation is passed as described in a Facebook post made by Birkeland, people impregnated during a sexual assault would have to first go to the police before obtaining an abortion— something Hansen didn’t feel comfortable doing until months had passed after her attack.
“It took me well over a year before I was able to file a police report; re-living the smallest details of what happened to me as the police took their report (knowing full well any DNA was long gone, all I could do was hope to create a stronger case for the next girl should she find the strength to come forward sooner than I did) was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” Hansen wrote in a Facebook post about the bill.
In an October email, Birkeland said she is still working on the bill, and that she plans to build in support for sexual assault survivors.
Hansen said she hadn’t even told her mom that she had been pregnant and sought information about an abortion until this year, when the right to one, previously protected under Roe v. Wade, was called into question. In making that post, Hansen told The Salt Lake Tribune, she was again hoping to help the next girl.
“I wanted to keep one piece of me for me, but I can’t, because there’s too many people that will suffer if I don’t once again use this platform I have built and stand up for what I believe in and say … had I not had that choice, I would have been successful taking my life,” Hansen said. “I know I would have been.”
Hansen, then-Samantha Yates, was a student at Brigham Young University in late August 2014, living off-campus in an Orem condo owned by her parents.
At the time, Hansen wrote in a 2015 blog post, she was living alone. Then-21 years old, most of her friends had either graduated the previous year or not yet returned to school from summer break.
While waiting tables, she met a new friend — a man who called her Lana Del Rey’s doppelgänger and had an interest in lunch dates and texting about Hansen’s love life. Hansen, she said, was under the impression that their relationship was friendly and not romantic.
One night, Hansen invited him over to watch Netflix. He brought the snacks and drinks.
This friend, who may have given Hansen a false name, slipped a drug into the Coke she was drinking, Hansen alleged in an incident report made to the Orem Police Department in January 2016 and obtained by The Tribune. She told police that she thought her friend did it when she stood up to make popcorn.
After that, Hansen’s memory is fuzzy, but she remembers her friend kissing her as she tried to push him away.
“It’s mostly a bunch of flashes,” Hansen wrote in her blog post, titled “The R Word.” “Occasionally, when I dream about that night, I’ll remember something new. Those are the nights that I wake up shaking and wanting to cry, feeling like I’m about to lose my mind because I can’t be certain if I’m truly remembering something that my subconscious is finally allowing me to see, or if it’s something my mind just fabricated.”
Hansen didn’t report the assault to BYU because her friend wasn’t a student there, she said in an interview The Tribune, and because her housing situation didn’t fully meet the school’s requirements.
Up until this year, all BYU students were required to live in on-campus housing, off-campus school-contracted housing, or with a family member. That rule now only applies to students in their first two semesters. Although her parents owned the condo, living there alone didn’t meet BYU’s standards.
The sexual assault took place at a time when students at the school run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were often investigated and disciplined under the university’s Honor Code after reporting that they had experienced abuse.
Hansen decided to report her rape to the police in 2016, hoping to keep her attacker from hurting other women and to “close that book” in her life.
The Orem Police Department report says that a detective would compile a photo lineup of possible suspects from a driver’s license database using the name Hansen’s friend used when interacting with her prior to the assault. According to the report, Hansen was out of town at the time and had said she would call the detective when she was back in Utah.
The Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Hansen, whose name was redacted in the report, agreed to be identified by her name in this story.
Hansen said she was never made aware of the photo lineup. An email chain between Hansen and the detective on the case that was shared with The Tribune does not mention the photo lineup and did not include a response to Hansen’s most recent email.
It’s also unclear if the detective attempted to share that information over the phone. A follow-up report from the detective includes a log of his attempts to contact Hansen. The last call he documented making to her was on Jan. 21, the day before she sent the last email.
According to the incident report, the case was closed in March 2016, two months after it was opened.
“Whatever that detective wrote in that report, that’s what has happened with that case,” a spokesperson for the Orem Police Department said in a phone call. “Standard procedure would be to keep in contact with them. … Our detectives are going to continue to try and contact them, and then at some point, if they stopped contacting, I guess they can be seen as someone who was not wanting to cooperate.”
The Orem Police Department incident report notes that Hansen was physically injured in the assault, and continued to be impacted for months.
A few weeks after her sexual assault, after she missed her period and took a pregnancy test, which turned up a positive result, Hansen said she drove to the Orem Planned Parenthood, just a few blocks away from her condo, to “find out my options.”
“I was at BYU, I was obviously active LDS at the time, and I’d always been taught that if you’re raped, or if there’s incest, it’s OK. You just go,” Hansen told The Tribune.
After her appointment, Hansen knew she had a hard choice ahead of her.
“I came home that night and pretty much split my soul in half trying to figure out what I was going to do,” she said.
Ultimately, Hansen decided she couldn’t go through with the abortion. She said she hadn’t made up her mind as to whether she would keep the child or give it up for adoption, but soon after, it didn’t matter. Hansen miscarried.
The trauma from being raped, she said, led Hansen to try several times to take her own life. In the winter after she was assaulted, her church bishop referred her to a therapist to help her deal with the intense depression and anxiety she was feeling.
What kept Hansen from following through with her suicide attempt the second time, she said, was a statistic that made her feel less alone — one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization.
“That meant I knew women who had experienced exactly what I was going through,” Hansen wrote in a 2020 blog post.
With that knowledge, Hansen decided she wanted other women who went through what she did to know they were not alone. She competed in the Miss Montana America pageant in 2016 with a platform centered on sexual assault awareness.
“I was the person that broke the silence, that got to have a lot of difficult conversations with people that were still in the headspace of, ‘We shouldn’t talk about these things,’” Hansen said of her platform, which preceded the viral #MeToo Movement by a year. “And I’m going, ‘Why shouldn’t we? It affects one out of three. Why shouldn’t we talk about it?’”
Changes to abortion law in Utah
Two weeks before the Fourth of July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Dobbs v. Jackson that abortion is not a constitutional right. Hansen and her husband, Josh Hansen, didn’t feel like celebrating Independence Day as they usually do — by hosting a party and lighting off fireworks.
Instead, they took their new daughter, who was 10 weeks old, to the steps of the Utah Capitol to protest the state’s abortion trigger law that took effect with the Dobbs decision. The law, which is currently on hold under a court order, bans abortion except in limited circumstances, including rape.
With her daughter strapped across her chest in a lavender carrier, Hansen held up a sign that read, “She deserves a better future than this,” with an arrow pointing down at her baby.
Months earlier, on the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Hansen’s older sister by 9 ½ years stood on the same steps as protesters called for the undoing of the precedent that protects abortion.
Pro-Life Utah President Mary Taylor spoke at the event, promoting a bill Birkeland introduced during the 2022 legislative session to increase regulations on abortion clinics and further limit access to abortion procedures. It didn’t pass.
Birkeland joined the Legislature in April 2020, not long after then-Gov. Gary Herbert signed the Abortion Prohibition Amendments — more commonly known as Utah’s abortion trigger law. The lawmaker is running for reelection, and included in her platform is that she “will fight” for “the unborn.”
In August social media posts announcing her upcoming bill to require survivors to report their rape to police before seeking an abortion, Birkeland wrote, “When a brave survivor comes forward to report, the full weight of the law should be behind them. We can’t afford to play games with this process, especially in an attempt to undermine abortion laws. Attempts to do such only hurts and re-victimizers rape survivors.”
Hansen has long known that her sister opposes abortion, but having both grown up in the LDS Church, which officially “allows for possible exceptions for its members (to seek an abortion) when … pregnancy results from rape or incest,” Hansen said she was shocked that Birkeland is taking this approach.
She agrees that more needs to be done to thoroughly investigate sexual assault allegations, but said putting that responsibility on survivors isn’t the way to do it.
“Let’s get the victim support first, instead of punishing them when they already had a choice stripped from them. Let’s not strip more choices,” Hansen said.
In an August interview following Birkeland’s announcement, BYU nursing professor Julie Valentine, whose research focuses on violence against women, said, “coercing anyone into an act, especially after they have gone through this substantial trauma, will be very damaging.”
Reporting a sexual assault to law enforcement can present safety risks, she pointed out. Women living in a domestic violence situation may be further endangered if the assailant is contacted by police, and people assaulted by someone they know could be threatened with retaliation if they disclose what happened.
“We need legislation that is trauma-informed, victim-centered and evidence-based. And this proposed legislation is the opposite of every single one of those concepts,” Valentine said.
Birkeland declined an interview about her sister’s Facebook post, but said in an email, “It’s unfortunate that my sister has felt the need to misrepresent facts regarding me, our relationship, and my own experience with sexual assault. However, my relationship with her is between she and I and I will not be airing our family’s laundry in the court of public opinion. Nor do I wish to publicly disclose my own personal experiences to gain political favor.
“I believe in legislating with logic over emotion. I am continually working with professional victims’ advocates to ensure that all victims are heard and considered while working to (strengthen) state law regarding offenders,” Birkeland continued.
In a later email prior to the publication of this story, Birkeland emphasized that she has not finished drafting the bill and that it is still in the research phase. The bill, she added, will be complex and involve multiple agencies. It will “include ways to provide support to the women who come forward that isn’t currently offered.”
“I want to hold the rapists and violent sexual offenders accountable, which is why I’m hoping that more and more women will come forward about their abuse,” Birkeland wrote in the email. “And we need it done in a time frame where the offenders can still be caught and prosecuted.”
“She is trying to wrap this bill up and package it with a pretty bow and label it as being for survivors. And as a survivor, I’m calling bull----,” Hansen said. “That is not a survivor bill, that is an anti-abortion bill. Let’s call a spade a spade.”
In her more than half a decade advocating for survivors of sexual assault, Hansen said her cause has never felt more important than it does now that she has a daughter.
When she found out last year that she was pregnant with a girl, Hansen cried, terrified that the child, like her mother, would be among the one-in-three women who experience violence. Her daughter’s birth has driven her to be louder than before.
“I already had a fire,” Hansen said. “We went from a pretty good bonfire to a forest fire when she came into this world.”
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