On March 20, a group of women dressed in red capes and white bonnets protested a collection of anti-abortion bills in the Texas Senate. The outfits were in tribute to characters from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which portrays a near-future when some women are forced to bear children and abortion is outlawed. Grassroots activists in Texas spearheaded the colorful direct action, which was also organized and supported by the advocacy organization NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and the abortion fundraising group Texas Equal Access Fund. “The idea behind it was … to show that these restrictions are walking us back,” said Alexa Garcia-Ditta, the communications and policy initiatives director at NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.
Two of the measures ultimately passed the state Senate and are headed to the House. If passed, one of the bills would outlaw a common procedure used for second-trimester abortions. The other would prohibit parents from suing doctors if their baby is born with defects, which critics say would allow anti-abortion doctors to withhold information from pregnant woman about fetal abnormalities or severe disabilities.
This is nothing new. Texas has long been a battleground state for reproductive rights. Even Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that legalized abortion, began with a case in Texas. Previously, the state banned abortions except in extreme circumstances to save the life of the woman. The U.S. Supreme Court changed that by deeming abortions a constitutional right for all.
But more than 40 years after the Supreme Court decision, women in Texas are still fighting for their right to access safe abortions and family planning services. In 2011, state legislators slashed taxpayer funding to Planned Parenthood and other clinics affiliated with abortion providers. As a result of the cuts, Planned Parenthood was pushed out of women’s health programs in Texas, and many clinics closed. Then in 2013, the state passed a law requiring doctors offering abortion services to obtain the right to admit patients to a nearby hospital. Reproductive rights advocates saw the measure as an attempt to restrict access to abortion, because many clinics couldn’t comply with the new regulation and were forced to close down. By 2014, about 96 percent of Texas counties didn’t have any abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Now that Congress and the White House are Republican-controlled, women’s rights are at risk throughout the country. The House Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act would defund Planned Parenthood by barring it from receiving Medicaid reimbursements for a year.
In these times when reproductive rights are on the line, it’s useful for progressives to observe how folks in conservative states are responding – and have been responding for years – to infringements on their civil rights.
I spoke with Garcia-Ditta to find out what reproductive rights advocates could learn from states like Texas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Hellmann: Why has Texas in particular been a battleground state for reproductive rights?
Garcia-Ditta: The leadership that’s been in place in Texas for two decades now certainly makes this state hostile toward reproductive health rights and justice. We’ve had governors who are conservative, who are anti-abortion, and who have been on a warpath … to defund Planned Parenthood and put abortion care out of reach.
[The] state Legislature is also Republican-controlled. We saw the numbers dramatically change in terms of Republican and Democratic representation after the Tea Party movement started. As their numbers increase, they can push things like cuts in family planning, even though we know those kinds of programs save money. They can promulgate anti-abortion bills and abortion regulations that have no basis in science or medicine, and state leadership won’t question them.
Hellmann: What tactics does NARAL Pro-Choice Texas use to fight barriers to women accessing reproductive health services, including abortion?
Garcia-Ditta: The bulk of our work is fighting abortion restrictions and expanding access. [We] fight TRAP laws, protect clinics, and expose crisis pregnancy centers.
TRAP stands for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. These are measures, bills, laws, and rules promulgated solely to shut down abortion clinics. [During former Texas Democratic Senator] Wendy Davis’ filibuster [in 2013], she stood for 13 hours, fighting a bill that at the time had four abortion restrictions in it. Two of them were classic examples of TRAP laws: One required physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital; the other mandated that all abortion clinics outfit themselves as mini-hospitals where actual surgery takes place, which is not actually the case. The procedures [at an abortion clinic] are really safe and don’t need a setup like you would need [in an operating room].
[Those TRAP laws have been] litigated in federal court here in Texas. The federal judge here struck [them] down, the state appealed to a very conservative federal circuit court that upheld the laws, and then the case made it to the [U.S.] Supreme Court. And then last summer those two TRAP laws were struck down.
NARAL and all of our partners were there at the Capitol when the bill was being introduced. [We utilized] all of our tools to get people out and to call representatives to fight the bill. [The NARAL Pro-Choice America] staff and our partners have traveled the state talking to the media, public officials, and the general public about the impact of these laws. Our executive director co-signed the amicus brief [a document from non-litigants that offers additional information on the case] in the Supreme Court case and then we worked with our partners to amplify the Supreme Court decision by participating in press events and a celebration [of the win] in Austin and Houston.
Right now, we’re trying to shine a light on some shaky contracts that were awarded recently to an anti-abortion ideological group that has no history of medical service provision.
Hellmann: Have you had any recent victories in securing access to family planning and abortions?
Garcia-Ditta: We have an ongoing project that exposes what are known as crisis pregnancy centers. They’re state-funded, nonmedical facilities that advertise themselves to be pregnancy resource centers. But once you get to the door, there’s a bunch of religious, ideological literature. The so-called counselors are working to dissuade people from considering or having an abortion. They peddle nonscience, they disseminate medically inaccurate information, and they lure people into their facilities by advertising that they offer people free sonograms. But then you get to the door, and they lie to you about your gestational age [causing women seeking an abortion to miss the opportunity].
NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and NARAL Pro-Choice America have been investigating these centers for a really long time, and that project is ongoing. We really are the only organization that is consistently on top of these places and visiting them undercover and exposing what goes on behind their doors. And a lot of them get state money – a lot of money.
We’re continuing that project, and we’re really proud of it because it’s a tremendous resource for reporters. We use a lot of our findings to advocate that this money could be spent elsewhere.
We’re building our community, too. [There are] people from all over [the state] who want to get involved in this legislative session. We’ve hosted close to 10 meetings around the state [and] informational webinars. We also communicate with folks when there’s an opportunity to register opposition or support for a bill that comes up at the capital. We’ve asked people to testify. And we are ready whenever people want to do direct action in their communities: We hook people up with resources; we help them organize.
Hellmann: What can the rest of the country learn from organizations like yours in Texas at a time when women’s rights are at risk nationwide?
Garcia-Ditta: We’re part of a network of organizations in our state that are all doing this work together. Whether that’s policy and advocacy organizations like us, organizations that provide practical support like abortion funds or travel funds, providers themselves, or legal organizations, we have a strong contingent of groups doing work to expand and protect access to abortion in Texas.
I think it’s important that even though the numbers are not on our side in the Legislature, we work really hard to remind our leadership, the state, and the country that, actually, the people are on our side. With the women’s marches across the country and the movements that have sprouted on social media, people are mobilizing and coming together and want to get involved. Maintaining that momentum is key so that we can see some leadership change, not just in major presidential election years, but in midterms, as well.
We participated in a multistate campaign earlier this year that celebrated the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That campaign was called Abortion Is Healthcare. [As part of that campaign], we worked with our Austin City Council folks to pass a resolution that declared “abortion is healthcare.” It passed 8-1. Our mayor was supportive, and we had a number of co-signers. The Abortion Is Healthcare resolution is part of a growing body of local policy work that we and NARAL [Pro-Choice America] are embarking on with our partners that are abortion funds – groups that provide financial assistance to people who can’t afford abortions. So we are intentionally looking to the major cities in Texas that we know are supportive of progressive issues, including access to abortion.
While the state is doing everything it can to restrict access, there’s opportunity at the local level, so we’re expanding that volume of work, and we’re really excited about it. The project is called Repro Power Texas.
There are tremendous opportunities at the local level. Historically, reproductive rights and health policy has been written at the state and federal levels. But I think cities, municipalities, and counties present a real opportunity. So I would just say: Don’t forget about them.