SAN ANTONIO—In Texas, how far women have come can be measured by how far they have to go. Scores of medical facilities have been shuttered in Texas, stranding almost a million women hundreds of miles from a health-care facility that they might need. The reason? These facilities provide, among other services, safe, legal abortions. Last week, the U.S. Appeals Court for the 5th Circuit affirmed Texas state restrictions on abortion access, closing 13 more clinics overnight. Overall, 80 percent of Texas abortion clinics have closed since the law went into effect.
Imagine the headline: “A Federal appeals court in Texas has ruled that 80 percent of gun stores in Texas must close.” Self-proclaimed patriots in Texas would be up in arms. But in the Lone Star State, not all rights are created equal. A woman’s right to choose, her right to terminate a pregnancy, her right to privacy, was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, more than 40 years ago, in its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.
The Texas Legislature, along with Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General (and current Republican candidate for governor) Greg Abbott, imposed laws in 2013 creating two significant barriers to the operation of clinics in Texas that perform abortions: First, doctors in the clinics were required to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals. Second, a series of architectural standards were devised, applicable only to abortion clinics, mandating massive renovations to facilities in order to stay open.
Pro-choice activists call these regulations “TRAP laws,” for “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers.” The nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that focuses on reproductive-health issues, reported recently that “26 states have laws or policies that regulate abortion providers and go beyond what is necessary to ensure patients’ safety; all apply to clinics that perform surgical abortion.”
Jeffrey Hons, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Texas, told me, “We are the southernmost and westernmost place where you can find an abortion in Texas, and there’s a whole lot of Texas that is south and west of us.” Hons’ clinic is one of three remaining in San Antonio—appropriate, perhaps, that these last clinics standing in West Texas are in the home of the Alamo. He described the impact on those women most vulnerable, who now must travel great distances for an abortion:
“Whenever someone is in one of these far-flung areas and is trying to find a surgery center, the distance she must travel, the immigration checkpoints that she and her partner will go through—maybe they are or are not documented and fear driving through these immigration checkpoints—these are real burdens.” He continued, “The psychological burden of knowing I have to leave my home, my family, my town, my world behind to search for this very private, very intimate health care, after very difficult decision making, and now do so in a place where my support network is not around me.”
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The Center for Reproductive Rights, which argued the case in the appeals court, noted that the court’s decision has “nearly 1 million Texas women facing a minimum of a 300-mile round trip to access their constitutional right to an abortion.”
“We hear stories all the time about people that are having to travel from these areas like the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio to try and get care,” said Lindsay Rodriguez, president of the Lilith Fund. The Lilith Fund provides financial support and education to women in need of abortion care. Rodriguez told me: “Overwhelmingly, the people that are most disadvantaged by these laws are going to be people of lower economic means ... people that are dealing with immigration issues. They might be people that, for any number of reasons, have more barriers to health-care access in general—not just abortion care, but also health-care access.”
These longer, more costly trips will result in women delaying the procedure, making it more complex and costly. By closing clinics, the law also will reduce access to contraception, thereby provoking more unwanted pregnancies, perpetuating the demand for abortions.
After the appeals-court decision, the Center for Reproductive Rights, joining with other groups, immediately filed an emergency application with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to reinstate the injunction against the Texas law.
Meanwhile, voters in Texas are heading to the polls. In one of the most closely watched races in the country, Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor against Democrat Wendy Davis. The choice couldn’t be starker. In June 2013, as a state senator, Davis stood and filibustered this restrictive abortion law for 11 hours, delaying its passage as a thousand supporters gathered, cheering. Davis recently revealed that she had terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons in the 1990s. For her, like women all over the country, this political issue is deeply personal. And it’s an issue that should unite people across the political spectrum: freedom from government intrusion into the most private decisions of our lives.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.