Earlier this month, when several Texas abortion clinics announced that they will be forced to close under a stringent state law that was enacted over the summer, reproductive rights advocates didn’t mince words about the devastating impact of the news. The latest round of closures leaves the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, a vast border community in southwestern Texas, without any clinics whatsoever. Since the abortion clinics that have managed to stay open under the new law are located in Texas’ urban centers, there are little options available for women in the more rural areas of the state, who now have to navigate a 400-mile stretch that doesn’t have a single facility providing abortion care.
And there is perhaps nowhere more rural than the Lower Rio Grande. One of the poorest regions of the country, this area of Texas is home to thousands of so-called colonias, which are border communities that aren’t technically considered to be Texas municipalities. Colonias often lack basic services that the state provides in other counties, like paved roads, electricity, sanitation systems, clean water, and safely constructed housing units.
Women here have been facing serious threats to their reproductive rights well before Texas’ new law started shutting down abortion clinics.
Although the national media typically focuses its attention on abortion, that’s not the only type of health service that’s disappearing in Texas. As the state’s clinics are shuttered, women are also losing access to basic preventative care like birth control and Pap smears. On top of that, the family planning network in Texas has been crippled by deep funding cuts over the past several years.
“The U.S. has been building up a reproductive health safety net since the 1970s that been serving millions of women. For many women and men, it’s their first point of access to health care. Now, under the cover of night, states like Texas are eroding that safety net with a combination of complicated strategies,” Katrina Anderson, the Human Rights Counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, explained to ThinkProgress.
In 2012, state lawmakers decided to defund Planned Parenthood, and kicked the national women’s health organization out of the local network of Medicaid providers — a move that has forced dozens of clinics to close, and has left low-income women scrambling to find new doctors. Coupled with rounds of budget cuts, this policy change has had catastrophic results. Now, the Texas Women’s Health Program, which is intended to provide check-ups and birth control for low-income women, isn’t effectively reaching the residents who need it most. Although the state program served about 287,730 women in 2005, that number dropped down to just 47,322 last year.
Predictably, Texas’ most vulnerable residents are suffering the most. In partnership with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Anderson’s group recently published a report on the health care crisis in the Rio Grande Valley. The report collected stories from low-income and immigrant women who have essentially been locked out of the state’s struggling family planning system — women who have been waiting for years to afford mammograms after finding lumps in their breasts, or have been forced to stop using their birth control because they can’t spare the extra money for it.
But the women of the Rio Grande aren’t anyone’s victims. They’re standing up, and they’re fighting to take their community back.
Transforming personal stories into policy change
The Rio Grande report, entitled “Nuestra Voz, Nuestra Salud, Nuestra Texas” — or, our voice, our health, our Texas — is largely a collection of personal stories that paint a vivid picture of what’s at stake in the region. But it also ends on a call to action. The authors included concrete policy proposals, like restoring funding for the Texas Women’s Health Program and expanding Medicaid in Texas, to start making progress on issues of women’s health.
“We’re using this report to build support for a policy blueprint for improving Latinas’ reproductive access in Texas. We’ll unveil that in January, at the beginning of the next Texas state session,” Anderson explained. “The ultimate goal is to mobilize Latinas in the state, and partner with community groups to push for solutions to their local problems.”
“What’s unique is the way that we’re pushing,” Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, told ThinkProgress, explaining that activists have a multi-level approach to attacking those policy goals.
The two organizations have held letter writing campaigns, planned district visits, and met with congressional staff. They’re planning a larger advocacy day for January, once lawmakers are back in session. And currently, activists are touring the state, traveling to cities like El Paso, Houston, San Antonia, and Corpus Christi to share the stories included in “Nuestro Texas.” This push will culminate with a large event in the Rio Grande that will be attended by some state lawmakers who are committed to the policy proposals in the report.
“When we bring these women’s stories to lawmakers, we can really see promise and hope for future change,” González-Rojas noted.
And they’re not confining themselves to Texas’ borders. At the end of February, they held a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill to tell national lawmakers what they need to do to help expand health care access for the women of Texas.
Anderson told ThinkProgress that last month’s briefing, which was spearheaded by Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), and Gene Green (D-TX), was well-attended. Advocates worked to highlight what’s currently happening in Texas, make recommendations for federal policies to strengthen immigrant community’s health care, and build momentum for securing reproductive rights for underserved populations.
“A lot of people on the Hill think — well, we passed the Affordable Care Act, we allocated more funds for community health centers, and that will make sure everyone has access. So we need to draw attention to the fact that’s not actually the ultimate solution,” Anderson said. “We’re using Texas as a negative model of what can happen when you get rid of family planning programs.”
Since about 40 percent of Texas’ population is Latino, examining the impact that state policies have on Latina women can help assess those laws’ overall effect. But these issues are ultimately broader than the Latino community, and broader than Texas. Other states have also been slashing family planning funds in recent years. Title X, an incredibly effective and relatively low-cost program that helps save the government billions, has been cut by more than $23 million over the past two fiscal years.
The year of accountability
Anderson told ThinkProgress that 2014 is really “the year of accountability” when it comes to Texas women’s health. Activists are taking advantage of every pressure point to push for real change.
In addition to lobbying on the state and federal levels, women from the Rio Grande Valley have also taken their issues all the way to the United Nations. Earlier this month, delegates from the Center for Reproductive Rights traveled to Geneva to share the “Nuestro Texas” report with the UN’s Human Rights Committee, pointing out that the situation in Texas could be considered a human rights violation.
They argued that the elimination of low-income and rural women’s health care access violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States has ratified. Calling the Rio Grande a “human rights crisis,” delegates urged UN officials to ensure that the United States lives up to its commitment to these values by remedying the issues in Texas.
Lucy Felix, an organizer for the Latina Institute for Reproductive Health who’s based out of the Rio Grande Valley, was one of the people who went before the UN to address the realities on the ground. “We’re so thrilled to bring Lucy and have that voice represented,” Anderson told ThinkProgress in an interview a few days before they left for Geneva.
Every four years, the ICCP treaty’s monitoring body reviews each ratifying country. Since the U.S. is up for review this year, reproductive rights advocates hope it will be a good opportunity to highlight critical areas of improvement so that women can access their fundamental right to health care.
“Women from rural North Dakota to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are fighting to exercise their reproductive rights, which are firmly grounded in the U.S. Constitution and the ICCPR,” the Center for Reproductive Rights notes on its website. “This report and the upcoming review of the U.S. opens the door to accountability and, one hopes, meaningful change.”
The women who are going to change the state
Here at home, where the women of the Rio Grande Valley are fighting for meaningful change in the Lone Star State, Anderson and González-Rojas believe they’ll succeed.
“The reception has been really positive in Texas, especially among Latina lawmakers who are already champions on this issue,” Anderson noted. “The Texas delegation in Congress is really supportive. It’s really encouraging to see.”
“We’re encouraged by all of the media attention we’ve gotten lately, and we know that things are going to change in Texas. They just can’t stay where they are now!” González-Rojas said. “Women are rising up and fighting back. They see the seeds of change that are being sown, and they’re excited about what could happen.”
Anderson noted that Americans don’t need to live in the Rio Grande to be invested in the issues that are going on there.
“At the most fundamental level, these are basic human rights — the right to choose your family size, which impacts your whole level of participation in society. One of our most sobering findings was the fact that woman are struggling to get screened for cervical cancer, which is a preventable disease,” she said, pointing out that the dismantling of the family planning safety net is forcing women to live with fear and uncertainty. “The cruelty is really made clear — okay, we’re not going to fund these very cheap, simple solutions and we’re going to make you suffer the pain of that. This goes beyond immigration, and beyond poverty. Everyone should be paying attention to this.”
But the two organizations spearheading “Nuestro Texas” are eager to emphasize that, despite the bleak headlines about the Rio Grande in the national media, these women aren’t interested in being victimized. They’re proud of their communities, and they have the strength to rise up against the challenges in Texas.
“This isn’t about construing us as victims. This is about us as sources of power that are fighting back,” González-Rojas explained. “As the women we work with say: ‘Don’t pity me; fear me!’ This is a growing political force, and politicians should watch out.”
“These are the women who are going to change the state,” she added.