Over the past several years, Texas has provided a particularly stark example of what can happens when states decimate their network of women’s health providers. Determined to limit access to abortion, conservative lawmakers there have pursued catastrophic policies that are contributing to human rights violations, according to the Latina activists who are now fighting back.
The Lone Star State has made frequent headlines for unraveling its family planning network, defunding Planned Parenthood, passing harsh restrictions on abortion, and shutting down health clinics. Although the conflict is often framed solely in terms of abortion, closing Texas’ clinics has also severely limited access to other forms of reproductive health care, like regular check-ups.
The situation has become particularly dire for the impoverished immigrant communities living in rural parts of the state, many of whom have been locked out of affordable health care altogether. With barriers to transportation and limited financial resources, the Latina women who live in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley — a border community with disproportionately high rates of poverty and uninsurance — are being forced to go without the essential medical services they need.
This week, they got a chance to spread the word. Twenty residents of the Rio Grande Valley who have been directly affected by the current barriers to health care testified before a global human rights panel on Monday, detailing how Texas lawmakers have prevented them from accessing birth control, cancer screenings, and abortion care.
“We wanted to create a space where women could share their stories publicly — many of them, for the first time. It was a really powerful day,” Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, the Texas director for policy and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), one of the organizations that spearheaded Monday’s event, told ThinkProgress.
One mother, for instance, said she has been living in “despair” because her 13-year-old daughter was diagnosed with lumps in her breasts, yet hasn’t been able to visit the doctor for a follow-up appointment in the past six months. Another woman said she feels an “immense fear” because she has a tumor in her uterus and she can’t afford to regularly visit the gynecologist.
Many of the women who testified at the event preferred to remain anonymous because of the stigma that can accompany speaking out about sensitive health issues. One of the women who did feel comfortable being identified was Paula, who volunteers as a community health educator with NLIRH. Even though Paula spends her time educating other people about reproductive health issues, she has her own struggles getting the regular check-ups she knows she needs.
“I have not had a pap smear done for the past four years, and I’m a U.S. citizen — I’m supposed to have health care, I’m supposed to have those benefits of being a citizen, and I don’t have them,” Paula told ThinkProgress. “I’ve called clinics and they have a waiting period of six months to a whole year. It’s hard.”
For women of color living in Texas, missing out on reproductive health care can have dire consequences. Latinas have the highest rates of cervical cancer of any ethnic group in the United States. And thanks to the cultural gaps that prevent many immigrant women from feeling comfortable talking about their sexual health with doctors they don’t know very well, they also struggle with high rates of sexually transmitted infections.
Along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, NLIRH recently released a report called “Nuestro Texas” that details the devastating impact of Texas’ current family planning landscape for the residents of the Rio Grande. The two groups have been using the personal stories collected in that report to push for real policy change. They recently partnered with a group of Democratic lawmakers to introduce a package of pro-choice legislation that would roll back some of the damage that’s been done to women’s health in the state.
The activism in this area has always been primarily motivated by a human rights framework. Almost exactly a year ago, delegates from the Center for Reproductive Rights traveled to Geneva to share the “Nuestro Texas” report with the UN’s Human Rights Committee, arguing that the situation facing low-income women violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States has ratified. Calling the situation unfolding in the Rio Grande an example of a “human rights crisis,” delegates urged UN officials to hold the United States accountable by ensuring that officials address the issues in Texas.
This week, that conversation came full circle, returning to southwestern Texas for the first-ever women’s rights hearing held in the Rio Grande Valley. In a statement, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup, said the event helped expose Texas’ recent policies “as the human rights violations they are.”
Although some of Monday’s testimonies painted a bleak picture of life along the border, Rodriguez DeFrates emphasized that the hearing was ultimately an opportunity to emphasize the “collective strength” of Latina women who are joining together to fight back. “It’s no coincidence that we planned this hearing around the celebration of International Women’s Day,” she said.
Paula agreed. She said the testimonies weren’t intended to make people feel sorry for the Rio Grande. Every woman who spoke also proposed a solution to the current health care issues — like restoring the family planning money that’s been cut, increasing access to educational resources, and addressing the high rates of unemployment in a region where part-time jobs typically don’t come with stable benefits. The advocacy organizations in the region that have been working to make progress on these issues, Paula said, give her some hope.
“It gives us a sense of security that we’re not alone, and we’re not the forgotten border community,” she said. “We’re going to get mobilized and we’re going to get moving. If this is what takes to make our voices heard, we’re going to do it.”