There’s some surprisingly good news for advocates of reproductive rights in Texas this week: Instead of yet another abortion clinic being forced out of business, one is actually opening its doors.
When it comes to reproductive health care, there’s been nothing but bad press coming out of Texas recently. Since lawmakers approved a harsh package of abortion restrictions last summer, the number of clinics in the state has been cut in half. Women who live in some of the most impoverished regions of the Lone Star State have entirely lost access to the health services they need. Abortion providers haven’t minced words about the devolving situation, referring to it a crisis and a health emergency.
This week, Amy Hagstrom Miller is attempting to change the narrative.
Hagstrom Miller is the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, a group of reproductive health clinics with several locations in Texas that is serving as the lead plaintiff in the legal challenge proceeding against the state’s abortion law. In many ways, she’s become the public face of the ongoing fight to maintain access to abortion in the Lone Star State.
Three of Whole Woman’s Health clinics have been forced out of business under the new restrictions, known collectively as HB 2. But on Wednesday, following a victory in court that gave Texas providers a temporary reprieve from certain provisions under HB 2, Hagstrom Miller announced that she will be re-opening one of them. For once, there’s something for the reproductive rights community to celebrate — especially because Hagstrom Miller is re-opening a clinic in an area that desperately needs it.
The Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, which has been shuttered for the past six months, represents the only abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley, a rural border community that’s mostly home to low-income immigrant families. The women who live there have faced a 200-mile drive to the nearest operating clinic, a trip that’s simply impossible for some of the country’s poorest residents to make.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Hagstrom Miller said that it was “heartbreaking” to have to close that clinic with the knowledge that women in the region didn’t have any other options for safe abortion care. But she was hoping for a win in court; she left the McAllen clinic mostly intact in case she would be able to return. As soon as a federal judge handed down a temporary injunction on Friday, she started contacting providers to see if they wanted to go back to work.
“We called at least 10 different physicians who used to work for us at one time or another, and were able to line up a couple for next week and bring enough staff in so we could re-open,” Hagstrom Miller said. “We already have over 20 patients booked for tomorrow. The need is there — it always has been there — and it feels good to take care of the women locally.”
But she’s well aware it may not last. Within the next several weeks, the extremely conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit could reverse the injunction and allow HB 2 to fully take effect, a move that would force the McAllen clinic to close its doors for a second time.
HB 2 is one of the most sweeping packages of abortion restrictions in the country. It requires all physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges with a local hospital, requires women to adhere to an outdated and more time-consuming procedure for taking the abortion pill, and bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Those provisions all went into effect last November. The final provision, which requires abortion clinics to bring their building codes in line with ambulatory surgical centers, was scheduled to take effect at the beginning of this month. Friday’s ruling prevented the admitting privileges and building code requirements from being enforced for the next several weeks, but that won’t necessarily stand for long once the Fifth Circuit weighs in.
Considering the uncertain future in the courts, Hagstrom Miller thinks she might only be able to keep her McAllen clinic open for one week. But, she said, “we’re really happy to be able to have a short win.”
Even though the fate of abortion access in Texas is up in the air — Hagstrom Miller pointed out that banks won’t lend her any money to build new facilities there because “who’s to say that abortion won’t be illegal a year from now in the state of Texas?” — the head of Whole Woman’s Health is working on expanding her reproductive health services in other ways. Also on Wednesday, Hagstrom Miller announced that she will open a new clinic in New Mexico to serve women in the southern portion of that state, as well as women across the border in Mexico.
“I’ve had to close three facilities to date in Texas. While I am a human rights activist and a medical provider, I’m also a small woman-owned business,” Hagstrom Miller said. “So as I watched my company contract in Texas, I really wanted to figure out a place where we could open so I could offer jobs to the women who used to work for me in Texas, and where we could maintain our company size.”
Hagstrom Miller’s announcement this week included a third piece of news, too: Whole Woman’s Health will be launching an advocacy arm to continue working for a longer term cultural shift in the way that Americans think about abortion. The group has officially formed a nonprofit to help tackle the persistent abortion stigma that makes women feel ashamed to talk about the procedure.
The new organization, Shift, will seek to encourage “open and honest conversations” about what abortion is really like. In many ways, it’s a natural extension of Hagstrom Miller’s other prominent battles against HB 2; she noted that harsh anti-abortion laws are passed as a direct result of the stigma and misinformation surrounding a relatively common part of women’s health care.
Hagstrom Miller acknowledged that the ongoing trial against the law has been intense, and she may not have realized what she was getting herself into when she signed on her company as the lead plaintiff. But, currently making the media rounds to publicize her new efforts, she’s showing no signs of slowing down. She has a clear message about why exactly she’s still fighting: All three of her next ventures, she said, show that Whole Woman’s Health has “a long and strong commitment to making the world a better place for women.”