Anti-abortion activists trying to pretend Texans no longer have the right to choose

“I didn’t know I could get an abortion, I didn’t know abortion was still legal.”

A man walks past the former site of a clinic that offered abortions in El Paso, Texas CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JUAN CARLOS LLORCA
A man walks past the former site of a clinic that offered abortions in El Paso, Texas CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JUAN CARLOS LLORCA

Even if you don’t pay much attention to reproductive rights, it’s hard to avoid news about Texas. Over the past several years, the Lone Star State has made national headlines for passing particularly harsh restrictions on abortion that have shuttered dozens of clinics, sparking a complicated legal battle that threatens to make its way up to the Supreme Court.

This rapidly changing landscape isn’t just confusing for media outlets, which are constantly re-tallying the number of clinics that remain open depending on the latest court decision. It’s also created a serious knowledge gap among the real people who live in one of the country’s most expansive states.

“They’ll say, well, I heard on my local news channel that my local clinic was closed because of the law, so I thought all of the clinics were closed because of the same law,” recounted Amanda Williams, who serves as a board member for the Lilith Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps pay for low-income Texans’ abortions. “We hear it on our hotline all the time. We hear from our clients who say, until I found this number or until I found my local clinic, I didn’t know I could get an abortion, I didn’t know abortion was still legal.”

I had one patient who came to me and actually asked if the police would arrest her if she had an abortion.

Dr. Kumar, an abortion provider in Texas who doesn’t feel comfortable printing his first name because of the contentious political atmosphere in the state, now has to reassure his patients that they’re not breaking the law.

“I had one patient who came to me and actually asked if the police would arrest her if she had an abortion,” Kumar said. “She was very concerned. It sounded like a family member or someone in her life had told her that abortion was not legal. It was the first time in my few years providing I had heard of that before.”

It’s not really Texas residents’ fault. Williams pointed out the reaction actually makes logical sense; it’s hard to wrap your mind around a state law that would allow some clinics to remain open and force other clinics to close. Most people going about their daily lives don’t have time to study up on the complex legal nuances of the ongoing case in Texas.

“The average person who isn’t ardently following Texas politics may see something on TV about the law, or about an abortion clinic closing,” Heather Busby, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said. “They may not think about it until it comes up in their own lives and they need to make a pregnancy decision. And then they’re not sure where to go.”

Making matters worse: According to Busby’s organization, which closely tracks the right-wing crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that work to dissuade women from choosing to end a pregnancy, CPCs now outnumber abortion clinics in Texas.

CPCs typically look like regular health clinics. Often, they even have names that closely resemble the facilities that offer abortion services, so if patients run an online search for a clinic, the CPC will also pop up. It’s often hard for patients to tell the difference — and that’s the whole point. Making contact with patients who are considering abortion, and attempting to steer them away from that decision, is the central strategy behind this arm of the pro-life movement.

It’s really shocking… They’re lying to women and delaying the care that they’re trying to get.

Thanks to the already complicated landscape in Texas, crisis pregnancy centers’ misinformation tactics can be even more effective there. When pregnant women call or visit these fake clinics hoping to get information about abortion, and CPC employees won’t provide them with those resources, it can leave them with the impression that there aren’t any doctors in the state available to perform a pregnancy termination.

“From my experience answering calls, people will say, ‘I called a place I thought was a clinic, and they told me they couldn’t do abortions, and they couldn’t tell me who does abortions.’ They’re just not giving them the information,” Williams said.

Anecdotally, Busby says she’s heard stories of some CPC employees going even further and claiming that abortion isn’t legal, or that it’s only permitted up to eight weeks. Her organization has also documented instances of CPCs misleading patients about how far along their pregnancy is, and attempting to postpone patients’ first visit and schedule follow-up appointments for weeks later so that their pregnancies stretch on.

Kumar sees abortion patients every week who say they accidentally contacted or visited a CPC first before eventually making their way to his clinic. “It’s really shocking, some of the stories patients tell us about their experiences at these places. They’re lying to women and delaying the care that they’re trying to get,” he said. “Most patients don’t know these aren’t licensed clinics with medical professionals working there. They believe what they’re hearing.”

As reproductive rights proponents in Texas grapple with this reality, they’re trying to figure out what they can do to cut through the misinformation. Along with Shift, another Texas-based nonprofit working on issues related to abortion, the Lilith Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas recently launched a comprehensive website to point Texans in the right direction. With the help of a particularly straightforward URL — needabortion.org — the site details everything a pregnant person may need to know about accessing abortion services in the Lone Star State.

The home page of the site borrows some language typically favored by crisis pregnancy centers in an attempt to connect with patients who are desperate for information:

Visitors will see directions to all of the abortion clinics currently operating in Texas, the phone number for Shift’s confidential hotline, and information about all of the nonprofit funds that may be able to provide financial assistance for the procedure.

The site also provides simple answers to the logistical questions surrounding Texas’ complicated law. Yes, abortion is legal until 22 weeks after your missed period. No, your Medicaid plan will not cover the cost of the procedure. The clinic may ask to see a government ID, but won’t ask for your immigration papers. If you live less than 100 miles away from the closest clinic, you will need to make two trips there to fulfill the state’s waiting period and counseling requirements.

“Most people are saying, thank goodness this is here, I’m so glad there’s something so simple and so straightforward,” Williams, who is also affiliated with Shift, said. “I think this campaign is guided by our belief that this information is a human right. Nothing should prevent someone from getting the information they need to have their health care in their own hands.”

Nothing should prevent someone from getting the information they need to have their health care in their own hands.

The coalition behind the new website hopes to start distributing their materials in public places — for instance, stickers emblazoned with “needabortion.org” plastered on the walls of local bars and restaurants. Reproductive rights activists in other countries like Ireland have also relied on this type of guerrilla advertising to direct women toward online resources about safe abortion.

Dr. Kumar is glad that local activists are finding ways to get the right information into the hands of Texans. But he worries that the problem requires a much bigger solution.

“In an ideal world? Defunding CPCs so that patients aren’t given incorrect medical information would be ideal. I don’t know if that’s going to happen anytime soon in Texas, but that’s what we really need,” Kumar said, pointing out that these right-wing centers are propped up with taxpayer dollars that could be redirected to real medical providers.

“I always worry about the patients who don’t make it to the clinic at all,” he added. “Those are going to be the patients who are more marginalized — patients of color and patients of lower socioeconomic status. That’s who these laws hurt the most.”