The controversial abortion laws in Texas filibustered by Wendy Davis went on to pass this summer in a special session of the Texas Legislature. Since then, abortion right supporters have been watching the courts to see if the new law would survive legal challenges.
Yesterday, the first decision was handed down in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, a joint federal lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights representing Whole Women's Health, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Abortion supporters were elated as the national media reported that the law had been struck down as unconstitutional. Yet those of us in Texas fighting this fight were left a little confused because, well, most of the news yesterday was not that good.
So let's be clear about what happened:
One part out of the law was struck down as unconstitutional. The requirement for an abortion provider to obtain admitting privileges at area hospitals was deemed an undue burden and was ruled unconstitutional. That's a big deal because, as providers testified during the trial, they've tried for months to get admitting privileges and most have been unsuccessful. Many hospitals won't give admitting privileges for someone who won't be admitting patients with any frequency. Abortion is considered a safe procedure and thus not something that will necessitate admitting privileges for the performing physician. Many hospitals don't want to open themselves up to the anti-abortion protesters that currently hang outside abortion clinics, intimidating patients. This portion of the ruling means many clinics don't have to close today. That is cause to celebrate.
U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel did not find that imposing restriction on medical abortion (an abortion pill rather than in-clinic abortion) was an "undue burden." When in reality, it is.
Medical abortion often offers the cheapest, least invasive way for someone to obtain an abortion, especially if a person doesn't have a job with paid days off, or needs to travel far to reach a clinic. Even before the new law went into effect, abortion access was already a problem in the state because 93% of Texas counties don't have an abortion provider. The new procedures will require a patient to take up to four trips to receive care for one of the safest and preferred abortion procedures. With abortion pills, people can choose when to induce their abortion, timing it for weekends or days off, or when they can arrange childcare. About 40% of the clients at Whole Women's Health opt for medical abortion, and it is one of the best ways to terminate a pregnancy early. Physicians have vocally opposed this restriction.
Due to challenges in other states working their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the strategic plan by litigants to maximize resources to limit the harm inflicted on the majority of affected women, two important restrictions in the bill were not challenged. One is the ban on all abortion after 20 weeks.
No matter what, abortion after 20 weeks is now banned in Texas. Patients will have to travel to New Mexico or another state to obtain a later term abortion, a situation that a medical abortion is intended to help prevent.
Twenty week bans are often a Trojan Horse for getting abortion rights restricted because not all advocates feel comfortable with later-term abortions, and because only a small percentage of women seeking abortion services have passed the 20-week mark. Yet those in need often turn out to be the people who struggle hardest to afford or to access services. Most women that need an abortion after 20 weeks say that they would have opted for an earlier term abortion, but were unable to pay or meet the logistical challenges.
The later term clients also include women who find out around 20 weeks that their fetus has severe developmental issues and thus choose to abort. These are patients who need our compassion most, not our scorn or stigma. Doctors also have vocally opposed this restriction.
The Ambulatory Surgical Center restrictions go into effect next September. This section of the law will force some clinics to shut down that can't meet costly guidelines that require a clinic to meet stringent medical supply and staff standards that exceed what physicians require. Abortion is already one of the most heavily regulated medical procedures in Texas, despite having one of the highest safety rates. This aspect of the law is not affected by this week's legal ruling.
So, abortion rights supporters, hold onto that confetti. However one looks at it, Texans woke up today with less abortion access than they had yesterday. The recent rash of clinic closings actually stem from the last round of regulations put into effect in 2011. This new omnibus bill was a calculated attempt by lawmakers to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks in terms of limiting abortion care.
The more ways it's limited, the better a chance that some of the restrictions will go through. That's what we saw yesterday. The state already has filed an appeal with the conservative 5th Circuit of Appeals seeking reinstatement of the admitting privileges provision. Things could get worse before they get better.
How can you help?
- Register to vote (including checking your photo IDs – 34% of women don't have photo IDs that match their voter registration) and show up at the polls to say you won't take it anymore. More than that, register others and get people active.
- Meet the players. Come see "After Tiller" on Nov. 19, a film about the devastating effects of limiting abortion access on patients and providers, and learn from a panel working to protect rights in Texas, including Planned Parenthood, Whole Women's Health, and the Lilith Fund.
- Volunteer with a clinic like Whole Women's Health to provide comfort and service. They need people who do everything from escorting patients through the protestors to holding a patient's hand during an abortion.
- Write a letter, write an op-ed, make sure people know where you stand. Forward this FAQ to people who need information.
- Donate to the organizations like Whole Women's Health and Planned Parenthood that are dedicating resources to fight these onerous laws, and to the ones like the Lilith Fund which is here to help people who are falling through the cracks in our system.
You are needed, Texans. We can't do it alone, and it's far from over.
Lindsay Rodriguez is on the board of directors for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, an abortion fund that assists Texans in exercising their legal right to abortion by removing barriers to access. They can be found on twitter @LilithFund and on Facebook.