Incredible as it may seem there are still some issues that can rally bipartisan support. Take, for example, the federal Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act (SAFER), legislation that would help eliminate the backlog of an estimated 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide by allocating millions of dollars to perform DNA testing. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and passed last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is essentially the same bill championed by Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) during the last legislative session and signed into law.
Not that you can blame Cornyn for wanting to make a similar effort. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee he is faced with the formidable challenge of assuring female voters that his party really does care about women’s health and women’s issues and maybe even women in general. No easy task in the wake of Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s absurd comments on “legitimate rape” or the extreme language in the GOP party platform that allows for zero exceptions for abortion including in cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother—the same extreme pro-life position espoused by Paul Ryan. The war on contraception and family planning at both the federal and state levels has alienated women even more, at least if we believe un-un-skewed polling.
There’s little political risk involved in testing rape kits.
Unless, perhaps, you’re a conservative Texas House member in a close race for a state Senate seat. Like Cornyn’s legislation, Wendy Davis’ bill received broad bipartisan support. It passed unanimously in the Senate and all but eight House members voted for it, including Davis’ challenger state Rep. Mark Shelton.
(The other seven members voting no were fellow Republicans Leo Berman, Tom Craddick, Drew Darby, Dan Flynn, John Frullo, Tryon Lewis and Barbara Nash.)
Shelton’s opposition is especially puzzling considering that he’s been a pediatrician for 20 years. (His current title is director of pediatric infectious diseases at Cook Children’s Hospital but he’s still practicing full time.) A typical pediatrician’s patient population would include at least some adolescents—the age group that continues to have the highest rates of rape and sexual assault. To help physicians address the crisis, the American Academy of Pediatrics even issued guidelines on how to best deal with sexual assault victims and any associated legal implications, including reporting cases of statutory rape. According to the guidelines, pediatricians treating adolescent victims “should be trained in the forensic procedures required for documentation and collection of evidence or should refer to an emergency department or rape crisis center.” Such evidence would include rape kits.
Even taking Shelton’s extreme fiscal conservatism into account, Davis’s bill was found to have zero significant fiscal implication to the state. Some law enforcement agencies, however, including the San Antonio Police Department, expressed concern about a lack of resources to test the backlogged kits, which costs an estimated $1,000 per kit. The Fort Worth Police Department—in Shelton’s district—spoke in favor of the bill. One of Shelton’s supporters, Congresswoman Kay Granger, appeared with Cornyn in Fort Worth to show her support for the federal act. The Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center already provides assistance to Fort Worth police in reducing their backlogs. And in recent years, it’s been working. Out of 960 kits processed by the center 102 suspects were identified, which led to 47 arrests and 36 felony convictions. Still, as we reported earlier this year, some agencies have yet to comply with the law’s reporting requirements.
Although Dr. Shelton hasn’t historically been an advocate for women’s health issues, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be against helping victims of rape and sexual assault. But his thinking remains a mystery, as his staff couldn’t be reached for comment, despite leaving four messages over the past two days via email and phone. Maybe it was concern for local law enforcement. Maybe he just doesn’t like Wendy Davis. Or maybe he was overly tired and wasn’t aware of what bill he was voting on. There must be a perfectly reasonable explanation. We just don’t know what it is.