On Monday, a panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered a package of harsh anti-abortion restrictions enacted in Texas over the summer. After lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights argued that the new law has left the impoverished Rio Grande Valley without any available providers, forcing women who live there to make an 300-mile round trip to Corpus Christi to get to the nearest clinic, Judge Edith Jones scoffed. “Do you know how long that takes in Texas at 75 miles an hour?” she asked. “This is a peculiarly flat and not congested highway.”
The new law went into effect at the beginning of November, after a different panel from the same appeals court declined to block it. Monday’s hearing marked the latest battle in an ongoing fight over abortion access in Texas that’s captured national attention over the past several months. The three judges selected to debate Texas’ stringent abortion law this week aren’t likely to strike it down — particularly because Jones is a notoriously conservative judge who has upheld other anti-choice laws in the Lone Star State. In fact, Jones has encouraged the Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade altogether.
And during the proceedings on Monday, it became very clear that she hasn’t suddenly had a change of heart when it comes to reproductive rights. Jones repeatedly expressed skepticism that Texas’ new law — which imposes harsh regulations on abortion providers that have already forced dozens of them to stop practicing — will do anything to undermine women’s access to reproductive care.
In order to get an abortion in Texas, women already have to undergo a forced ultrasound, mandatory counseling, and a 24-hour waiting period. That means that women traveling 150 miles to get to the nearest clinic will actually have to make the trip twice: Once for the required ultrasound procedure and the counseling intended to dissuade them from their decision, and once again to actually receive abortion services after waiting 24 hours. According to Jones, that doesn’t represent an “undue burden” on women.
But suggesting that every woman who needs to get to an abortion clinic has access to a car that can zip along the highway at 75 miles an hour is a fundamental misunderstanding of the current landscape in Texas — as well as in other states across the country. In reality, 42 percent of the U.S. women who seek abortions have incomes that fall below the federal poverty line. These women typically don’t have easy access to transportation, or the means to take time off work to make a long trip to a clinic. And that’s not simply speculation; research into the subject has confirmed that women who live in states with harsh anti-choice laws, like Texas, struggle to get to the nearest clinic. Studies conducted specifically in the Lone Star State have found that the state’s mandatory waiting period already puts an emotional and financial burden on women who can’t afford to spend any extra time and money on their health care. An estimated 22,000 Texas women are projected to lose access to legal abortion services under the new state law.
These economically disadvantaged women don’t exist in Jones’ world. Nonetheless, they are the ones who will bear the brunt of Texas’ ongoing push to restrict reproductive rights.
And this socioeconomic divide is widening between the women who have enough money to exercise their rights and the women who don’t. The Guttmacher Institute reports that abortions have become increasingly concentrated among poor women over the past several years. Thanks to increasingly harsh state laws that drive up the cost of the procedure, there’s no reason to believe that trend won’t continue.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president of Whole Women’s Health, has been forced to dramatically scale back operations at her five abortion clinics since Texas’ new law went into effect. She attended the court hearing this week to attempt to explain this reality to Jones and her fellow judges. “Texans have a long way to go to restore justice to women. Our rights should not be determined by our zip code,” Hagstrom Miller said in a statement on Monday. “We cannot allow so many of our people — in the Valley, in West Texas, in East Texas — to be left out of basic human rights to health and safety.”
Nonetheless, Hagstrom Miller isn’t particularly optimistic about the legal challenge up before the conservative panel. “We’ve never had a lot of hope from the Fifth Circuit, but we await what’s to be seen,” she told Dallas News.