For women in rural parts of the vast state of Texas, obtaining needed abortion services just became much more of a challenge than it already was even before parts of the state’s omnibus anti-abortion law, House Bill 2, went into effect.
Last week, Planned Parenthood, alongside other abortion providers in Texas, appealed to the Supreme Court to block key provisions of HB 2, including the requirement that doctors obtain local hospital admitting privileges. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is assigned to handle emergency cases in the Fifth Circuit, has ordered the state to respond to the appeal by November 12.
That same day, the Supreme Court also declined without comment to hear another hotly contested case in Oklahoma appealing a state law effectively banning doctors from providing two drugs commonly used to induce early-term abortions.
On October 28, Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel struck down the admitting privilege mandate of the Texas law as unconstitutional. But the district court in Austin partly upheld another measure requiring doctors to use a certain Food and Drug Administration protocol in drug-induced abortions, which some doctors have criticized as outdated.
But the Texas attorney general’s office sought an emergency stay, and on Halloween night a panel of judges with a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law could go into effect. Justice Scalia will decide whether to reverse the Fifth Circuit after the appeals court considers a longer appeal of the case in January.
HB 2 bans all abortions after 20 weeks, requires physicians to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of any abortion facility, and requires all abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers by September 1, 2014, which would require doctors to administer in person the drugs that induce abortion.
Since some portions of the law have gone into effect, as many as 15 abortion clinics in Texas have had to close their doors, and many more are expected to shut down if Justice Scalia upholds the law.
“What we saw after the Fifth Circuit overturned the injunction was just what was predicted, the closing of anywhere from 13 to 15 clinics in the state of Texas, including in many counties who have now lost all providers within that area,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “Women are now struggling to get appointments at the remaining providers, struggling to get together the money to get to the providers, and we’re really worried about what’s going to happen to women who are unable to access safe, legal abortion here.”
The new law passed after three special sessions this summer in the Texas House and after State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), and thousands of Texans originally thwarted Texas Republicans’ plans to pass the bill with an 11-hour filibuster and sprawling protests inside and outside the Capitol rotunda. Davis is now running for Texas governor, and so is Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who filed the appeal of Yeakel’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit.
“Greg Abbott is pandering to the minority that thinks abortion should be completely inaccessible to women, and his actions in pushing for this emergency stay demonstrate that the kind of governor he would be, how harmful he would be to women in the state of Texas,” Busby told Truthout.
As clinics across the state begin to close, grassroots organizers hope to step in to help disadvantaged women in rural areas seeking abortion services. The decentralized activist group RiseUp Texas was very present in the Texas Capitol this summer amid the protests during the special legislative sessions when the law was being debated originally. The group organized a civil disobedience action in which five people were arrested for disrupting legislative proceedings.
The group is a coalition of organizations and individuals working in coordinated groups through Occupy-style general assemblies. One of its working groups is focusing of defending the remaining clinics in Texas as well as fundraising to assist in transporting women from rural areas to obtain abortion services in urban areas, where doctors are more likely to have hospital admitting privileges.
“We continue to have a really strong core of organizers who are focused on making sure the conversation happens around the communities that are most affected by this kind of legislation, the marginalized communities that are most affected by health care and the legislation in general, and making sure that those voices really, really get heard,” RiseUp Texas spokesperson Rockie Gonzalez told Truthout.
Gonzalez said the group is working closely with the Austin-based nonprofit Lilith Fund, which provides financial assistance and counseling to low-income women seeking abortion services across the state, to get clearance from the organization to become a potential transportation provider. Gonzalez said the Lilith Fund plans to gather information about transportation needs as part of its application process and in the future will work with activists who want to volunteer to provide transportation to women in rural areas to the remaining clinics in Texas’s major cities.
It’s a vital need for disadvantaged women in the largest state in the nation, and a need that could become essential if Justice Scalia decides to uphold HB 2, which abortion advocates have said will close down all but five clinics in the state.
“We’re constantly making sure that when we get into dialogue with people about reproductive justice that it’s not this dichotomy of abortion rights or not, or if abortion is good or bad, or wrong or right, but that we’re talking about body rights and body autonomy and that body autonomy is an issue that affects, again, largely marginalized communities and people of color. So we’re strategizing around those concepts,” Gonzalez said. “Our real goal is to get outside of the urban centers and do support and solidarity for folks who are outside of urban privilege.”