Over the past week, Texas has captured national attention with a dramatic show-down between a Republican-controlled legislature and thousands of reproductive health advocates. As grassroots activists work to block a package of stringent abortion restrictions that failed to advance in the regular legislative session, but that lawmakers continue to bring up for extra consideration in multiple special sessions, the media is taking notice.
In its coverage of the ongoing fight, the media is obviously interested in putting Texas’ proposed legislation — which would criminalize abortions after 20 weeks and force the vast majority of the state’s abortion clinics to close — into a broader context. The New York Times mapped out the public opinion on 20-week abortion bans. Following the same logic, Politico referred to Texas’ abortion proposal as a “bill that polls well” since “support for legal abortions drops dramatically after the first trimester.” The Washington Post pointed out that multiple other states already have 20-week bans on the books. Fox News referred to protests over a “strict abortion bill banning the procedure after the 20th week of pregnancy,” and a Washington Post columnist characterized Sen. Wendy Davis (D) as fighting for late-term abortion rights. And it’s easy to draw comparisons between Texas’ proposed ban and the national 20-week ban introduced in the House and, potentially, the Senate.
The implications of banning abortions at 20 weeks, which is an effective method of chipping away at the legal protections under Roe v. Wade, is an important part of the conversation. But many of the narratives the media is crafting about Texas’ abortion fight aren’t actually getting at the full scope of the story.
In addition to criminalizing abortion services after 20 weeks, the other provisions in Texas’ abortion proposals would impose harsh restrictions on abortion providers. By subjecting abortion clinics to new regulations that would force them to make expensive updates to their facilities — unnecessary measures that major medical groups, like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, oppose — Texas’ bill would force 90 percent of the state’s clinics to close their doors. That would leave just five abortion clinics in the entire Lone Star State, which happens to be the second most populous state in the country.
That type of indirect attack on abortion access is an extremely popular anti-choice tactic that is effectively advancing in many other states across the country — largely because it’s a complicated policy that may not spark as much initial outrage. Compared to abortion bans, which tend to capture the most media attention, it’s easier for abortion clinic restrictions to fly somewhat under the radar.
But women’s health advocates point out that legislation targeting abortion clinics actually represents the most serious threat to women’s reproductive access, with extremely far-reaching implications for women seeking abortion care. Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards has warned that closing so many clinics in the Lone Star State would ensure abortion is “virtually banned in the state of Texas.” That’s not in reference to abortions after 20 weeks; Richards is talking about the impact on every single women who lives in the state.
Texas is 773 miles wide and 790 miles long. The proposed restrictions would wipe out all of the abortion clinics in the western half of the state, leaving just a handful remaining in urban centers. If the measures currently being advanced in the legislature become law, many women living in rural areas will be forced to travel hundreds of miles to get to the nearest clinic — a trek that low-income women, who struggle to take time off work and pay for transportation, aren’t likely to be able to afford.
And the real catch? Outside of the debate about abortion access after 20 weeks — even outside of the fight for abortion rights altogether — the “abortion clinics” in question are often providing health services that encompass much more than helping women terminate a pregnancy. Many of them also provide preventative care, family planning counseling, STD testing, and cancer screenings. And they offer those health services to Texans of both genders who are typically uninsured.
Under Texas’ proposed legislation, many clinics that currently offer birth controls and condoms would have to cease those services for some of Texas’ neediest residents. “That is part of the concern that’s getting drowned out in the abortions versus pro-life soundbite,” Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D) told ABC News in a recent phone interview.
Previous research conducted in Texas over the past three years has demonstrated that poorer women in the state already struggle to navigate the existing abortion restrictions that block their access to reproductive care. Imposing even more barriers to health clinics, which many low-income women also rely on as their primary care provider, could be disastrous.
That prospect is especially concerning because Texas Republicans have already taken drastic measures to reduce these types of preventative health resources for low-income women in the state. In 2011, they slashed family planning funding and forced many women’s health clinics to either contract their services or shut down altogether. Last year, they successfully defunded Planned Parenthood, a move that forced even more clinics — including dozens that weren’t even affiliated with the national women’s health organization — to close their doors. The result? Texas is now funding 176 fewer health clinics than it did in 2011, and over 50 have been forced to shut down because of it. 200,000 women have already lost access to preventative care like birth control and cancer screenings. The state’s health department has projected that there will be an additional 24,000 unintended births as a result of the cuts because so many women are struggling to access the contraceptive services they need.
The GOP-controlled legislature has taken a dive in public opinion polls thanks to those family planning cuts. Before the regular session ended this year, Republicans actually agreed to work to restore some of that funding largely because they started to get worried about the growing backlash from their constituents. But many stringently anti-abortion members of the legislature decided they didn’t want to give up the fight so easily. Now, in the special sessions, their anti-woman agenda — one that Texas Democrats kept at bay for most of this year — is back in full force.
That’s a little bit more about the story in Texas (although not as clear of a picture as the activists on the ground could paint). That’s what ignited a groundswell of grassroots activism. That’s why so many people are so angry. That’s why thousands of protesters are standing up against these serious attacks that are putting a stranglehold on Texas women’s reproductive health, and that continue to squeeze tighter and tighter. Most women’s health advocates would certainly argue that maintaining women’s legal abortion access after 20 weeks is critically important. But that’s only one battle currently raging in Texas, and much of the coverage is missing everything else that reproductive rights activists are fighting for in the larger war.