Why we all stand with Texas women

July 11, 2013

A Texas-sized struggle is galvanizing pro-abortion rights sentiment across the U.S.

ALL EYES are on Texas as lawmakers meet in a special session called for virtually a single purpose: to pass legislation with sweeping restrictions on a woman's right to choose abortion.

But that's if they can drown out the determined, continuing and very vocal opposition of Texas women.

The anti-choice proposal would sharply curb abortion access in the state and challenge the federal right to abortion established by the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Some media commentators act as if the Texas Republicans' determination to drive through anti-abortion restrictions is the product of the Southern, sometimes-secessionist state's inherent redness. But Texas is only one among many states considering similar legislation--in fact, the Texas version is moderate in many respects compared to bills that have already passed in North Dakota, Arizona and elsewhere.

What sets the fight in Texas apart is the Texas-sized resistance that stopped the legislation from being pushed through once, when the now-famous "people's filibuster" prevented the state Senate from voting until a midnight deadline passed on June 24.

Pro-choice protesters gathered outside the Texas state Capitol building
Pro-choice protesters gathered outside the Texas state Capitol building (David Weaver)

That resistance is galvanizing a national pro-choice sentiment against the anti-abortion onslaught. On July 15, Texas women--and their allies--will rally once again against the legislation, and they will be joined in their day of action by activists around the country, who are planning protests and other events in solidarity.

THE TEXAS House version of the anti-abortion bill passed on Wednesday--a vote by the Senate is expected next week.

If the legislation goes through this time, it will have a dire effect on women's access to reproductive health care. The law imposes impossible and medically unnecessary facility standards that will likely lead to the closure of 88 percent of health centers that currently provide abortions, among other services--just five out of 42 existing abortion providers are expected to be able to keep their doors open.

These closures could potentially leave tens of thousands of women and men without access to clinics on which they also depend for regular reproductive health screenings and family planning services. For many low-income women, LGBTQ people and women of color, these clinics may be the only place they can access any medical care.

Republican lawmakers claim the new facilities standards that anti-abortion legislation would impose are needed to ensure that women seeking to terminate a pregnancy get top-notch care. But their disregard for women's health has already been demonstrated by the devastating toll that anti-choice legislation and budget cuts have already taken.

In 2011, the state cut funding for family planning by two-thirds and barred women using state Medicaid funds from receiving care at Planned Parenthood facilities. Those cuts forced 60 health centers to close.

If Republicans were interested in promoting the health and well-being of women or their families, they could start by funding comprehensive sex education--currently, 94 percent of Texas school districts rely on "abstinence-only" programs. Or they could expand Medicaid and other programs to provide poor women and children with basic health care, child care and more. Instead, Texas imposed drug testing on welfare recipients last year, potentially punishing substance abuse sufferers with permanent bans from receiving aid for food, clothing and shelter.

Republicans also claim to be taking action to defend the sanctity of life. But Texas is the execution capital of the U.S., having put 1,251 people to death in the modern era of the death penalty. And while legislators are eager to regulate women's reproductive choices, state deregulation of workplaces helped make possible the explosion in April at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in West, Texas, which claimed 14 lives and injured another 200 people.

In reality, the Texas anti-abortion bill is intended to contribute to the rolling back of the historic gains of the women's movement, including women's fundamental right to control their own bodies and lives.

Unfortunately, Texas isn't alone. State lawmakers across the country are imposing more and more draconian restrictions on abortion rights.

Most recently, Ohio snuck anti-choice provisions into a budget bill that will require physicians to inform women seeking abortions of the existence of a fetal heartbeat--and to make pregnant women pay for their own ultrasound before seeking to terminate a pregnancy. These measures insisting on ultrasounds and fetal heartbeat checks, which are widely popular among right-wing lawmakers, have no medical rationale whatsoever. Their only purpose is to contribute in coercing women to reconsider having an abortion.

Other states have gone even further. South Dakota specifies that health care providers must misinform pregnant women that abortions lead to infertility. Six states, including Texas, require abortion counseling that suggests abortion may increase a woman's risk of breast cancer--another medically unfounded claim.

More than half of all U.S. states have passed TRAP laws, or Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute. These measures aim to close health care facilities if they fail to meet arbitrary and prohibitively expensive regulations to match standards for surgical hospitals. While the vast majority of abortions are performed outside of hospital settings, less than 0.3 percent of abortion patients in the U.S. experience a complication that requires hospitalization, the study reports.

But again, women's health isn't the concern. In state after state, anti-abortion legislators are seeking to place abortion practically out of reach, rendering the right of women to obtain an abortion, guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, a moot point for many.

States are also testing the waters for a challenge to legal abortion altogether. The Texas bill's threat to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy is one of a number of recent state proposals that seeks to undermine Roe's protection of abortion rights until fetal viability, generally viewed to be at 24 weeks of pregnancy.

In March, North Dakota passed the country's most extreme limit, potentially banning abortions after just six weeks of pregnancy--that is, right about the time most women find out for sure that they're pregnant. Gov. Jack Dalrymple called the law "a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade."

THIS NATIONAL assault on women's reproductive rights explains the mass outpouring of support for the call to "Stand with Texas Women."

During the first special session of the Texas legislature called by Gov. Rick Perry, some 200,000 people tuned in to Livestream coverage of Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis's 11-hour filibuster. Those watching around the country cheered along with the protesters packed into the Capitol building who raised their voices in the "people's filibuster" to stop senators from voting before the midnight deadline.

Perry wasted no time in calling a second special legislative session, with almost no business but the anti-abortion proposals. But the mobilizations in the Texas capital of Austin have continued.

Two separate demonstrations on the first day of the session on July 1 drew more than 10,000 people. Thousands returned to the Capitol to offer testimony or register their opposition to the bill--and that's despite maneuvers by the bill's supporters to silence their opponents. The protests have had a clear effect on public opinion--more Texans oppose the legislation than support it, and 80 percent say they are against the use of a special legislation session to pass a bill that has already failed.

Activists in Texas have called for a national day of solidarity on Monday, July 15. It's a call that everyone who cares about women's rights must do what they can to support. The attacks that Texas representatives are poised to push through mirror assaults taking place nationwide.

This is everyone's fight, and by standing in solidarity with those fighting back in Texas, we can start to shift the tide on this issue.

WENDY DAVIS' defiant filibuster last month was a refreshing exception to the general behavior of Democratic politicians at both the national and state levels, who defend a women's right to abortion in rhetoric, but routinely compromise and concede in practice. Davis rightly stated that the struggle won't end if the Republicans, as expected, ram through anti-abortion legislation. "I don't think it's the end," she said. "It's the beginning of a battle line."

But supporters of abortion rights need to draw the lessons from this battle for the fights ahead.

For example, Davis' fellow Democrats in the Texas House, Senfronia Thompson and others, brought coat hangers and turpentine to the floor debate to appeal for an amendment that would grant exceptions to the 20-week ban for survivors of rape and incest. They used the props to dramatize the potentially deadly lengths victims of these circumstances might go to without access to safe, legal abortions.

The gesture was quickly torpedoed by Republicans who refused to consider any amendments. But the argument also falls back on a favored Democratic strategy of reducing the debate bout abortion to the most extreme circumstances. This narrowing of the defense of abortion rights has allowed the right wing to increasingly dominate the debate, while chipping away at access and legal protections of abortion as every woman's right.

By contrast, the outpouring of unapologetic pro-choice activism in Texas provided fresh energy for our side. In a very real way, it provided Davis with the support necessary to carry out her filibuster--and then finished the job when Republicans used underhanded maneuvers to shut her down.

Moreover, the huge presence of pro-choice women has shown how critical reproductive freedom is to people's practical lives. Thousands of Texans have shown in practice that they don't want to wait for this assault to be signed into law before going to polls next year and voting out the Republicans--if that's even possible in a state where the GOP is using every means available to them to ensure their majority.

Ordinary people in Texas have taken a stand to interfere with the plans of the rich and powerful to impose their agenda. In so doing, the marchers and protesters stand in the footsteps of a generation of women and men who took their demand for safe, legal, accessible abortion into the streets and compelled the Supreme Court to recognize abortion as a constitutional right in 1973.

In an open letter supporting the July 15 national day of action, a group of activists and scholars declared:

We firmly believe that if we were to stand up and be counted, the pro-choice forces in this country will outnumber the forces of reaction. It is in this vein that we call on all people who believe in a woman's right to choose to stand up and be counted...

We believe it is possible to win back our rights, but only if we take a stand in the way that people have been standing for their rights in Brazil, Egypt and Greece: by understanding that popular protest has the ability to change what a narrow minority of people impose under the fiction of legality.

Texas' special session could be remembered as a critical turning point for women's rights nationwide--if we draw the lesson that we don't have to wait for Democratic politicians to stand up for us, but that we have the power to raise our own voices and act.

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