Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the biggest abortion case of the 21st century. The case questions a Texas law, called HB2, that uses elaborate tactics to essentially regulate abortion clinics into extinction. Despite its complexities, the case really comes down to one seemingly simple question: Does this law place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion?
Definitely, according to researchers in Texas — where HB2 has been law for more than two years.
Members of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP), a research group based at the University of Texas at Austin that’s been tracking the state’s reproductive health policies for years, used concrete data to paint a picture of just how burdensome HB2 is to Texas women.
“This study is unusual in its ability to assess multiple burdens imposed on women as a result of clinic closures,” said TxPEP researcher Liza Fuentes.
“Undue burden” is an incredibly vague term that’s used as the current legal standard to assess whether abortion laws violate Roe v. Wade. Courts have taken advantage of its blurred meaning to allow restrictive laws like HB2 to stand. If the Supreme Court finds no evidence of HB2 going too far to burden women, it could open up the door for more states to craft equally restrictive laws.
The TxPEP researchers paint a grim picture of the disastrous consequences of the law.
In 2012, there were 36 abortion clinics in Texas. After HB2 became state law in 2013, 14 clinics were immediately forced to close. Now, there are only 10 left in the second largest state in the country.
Of the nearly 400 Texas women seeking abortions that TxPEP surveyed in 2014, a year after the law passed, 25 percent lived more than 139 miles from an abortion clinic. Those who used to live near one of the clinics HB2 forced to close had to drive an average of 85 miles for the procedure. The national average for a trip to get an abortion is 30 miles.
For many women, this distance alone could be the determining factor in whether or not they go through with ending an unwanted pregnancy. Hours’ worth of driving — in some cases, just to swallow a pill — means women would likely have to take at least a day off paid work, find childcare if they have children, and have the funds to cover gas costs. That is, if they have a car in the first place.
Not only does this distance put undue stress on women seeking an abortion, but it also creates a significant financial burden -- another factor the TxPEP researches zeroed in on. Thirty-two percent of women surveyed spent more than $100 on expenses beyond the cost of an abortion. Thirty-seven percent of Texas women who lived far from a clinic did not get the abortion they wanted. Most planned on taking the abortion pill, the most common method for a women less than nine week pregnant, but instead had to schedule a later-term surgical abortion, since arranging a long trip took more time than anticipated.
In total, 36 percent of all women whose local abortion clinic closed due to HB2 said that obtaining an abortion was difficult. Eighteen percent of those lucky enough to live near one of the remaining clinics felt similarly.
"If the Supreme Court rules to allow this law to go into affect in Texas, we'll definitely see even more barriers to access," said Daniel Grossman, another TxPEP researcher. More clinics will close, he said, and "existing clinics will have very limited capacities."
These burdens faced by Texas women seeking abortions are often too much. Somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women of reproductive age living in Texas tried to end their pregnancy on their own, according to an earlier TxPEP study.
And if HB2 remains, Grossman said, "this will only get worse."