When we talk about the way American women are rapidly losing the ability to govern their own bodies, it's necessary to resort to statistics: 288 abortion restrictions passed in the past five years; dozens of clinics forced to close; 19 states that fail, completely, on reproductive health. But statistics can often feel remote—it's easy to forget that those numbers represent millions of women whose dwindling options have left them in a desperate situation.
In the past few years, Texas has come to represent the war politicians are waging on women's basic bodily autonomy. In 2013, former Texas Governor Rick Perry signed HB2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill, into law. HB2 mandates that abortion providers must meet several onerous requirements in order to remain in operation.
Although HB2 is billed as a law that protects women's health, both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association publicly oppose it on the grounds that it "jeopardizes the health of women in Texas," arguing that "there is no medically sound reason for Texas to impose more stringent requirements on abortion facilities than it does on other medical facilities that perform procedures with similar, or even greater, risks." (Women's health providers are currently challenging this law at the Supreme Court, and many reproductive health experts think the outcome of that case could determine the future of abortion access in America.)
We've heard from women who have had to pawn or sell personal items, such as furniture or wedding rings, to pay for abortion care.
Even in comparison to the wildly depressing national landscape, Texas's statistics are jarring: Since parts of HB2 first took effect in 2013, the number of abortion providers in the state has dropped from 41 to just 19. If HB2 is allowed to stand, that number will plummet to just ten. As of April 2014, there are over 1.6 million Texas women of reproductive age who live over 50 miles from their nearest abortion provider. A study from this year estimates that as many as 240,000 women in Texas have attempted to self-induce abortions in their lifetime.
For countless women living in the state, the reality behind these figures is even bleaker. According to Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), the organization's hotline is frequently flooded with calls from women in Texas "who have effectively lost the option of obtaining safe, affordable, and timely abortion care because of HB2."
On a press call, she described how many women are left without options when their nearest clinic closes, forcing them to drive up to hundreds of miles—twice, due to the state's mandatory 24-hour waiting period, which requires any woman who wishes to get an abortion to receive in-person counseling and then return the next day to terminate her pregnancy—to access care. "They cannot travel the distance required to reach another clinic, they cannot lose wages or risk their jobs in order to take extra time off work, or they cannot afford the cost of child care or staying overnight in a distant city," Saporta said. "We've heard from women who have had to pawn or sell personal items, such as furniture or wedding rings, to pay for the additional travel-related costs of obtaining abortion care."
It takes a patient one to two days of consistent calling to get through to make an appointment. And, sadly, we still have to turn women away.
Multiple abortion providers who were able to remain open following HB2 said that their number of patients skyrocketed after the law took effect. According to Tenesha Duncan, an administrator at Southwestern Women's Surgery Center, an abortion clinic in Dallas, she and her colleagues are now seeing twice as many patients. The clinic now operates six days a week, and staff regularly have to work 12-hour days. "[We] now have seven people just answering phones," she said, "but even with these expansions, it still takes a patient one to two days of consistent calling to get through to make an appointment. And, sadly, we still have to turn women away because we can't handle additional patients."
Ginny Braun is the former director of Ruth Street Clinic, a clinic in Dallas that closed in June of 2015 after operating for 36 years. In April 2013, the clinic had to temporarily close for two weeks because of HB2. (It closed permanently in June of 2015.) In the press call, she recalled telling a lobby full of patients—all of whom thought they would be receiving abortion care that day—that the clinic was closed and they had to leave. One patient in particular, a middle-aged mother from Oklahoma who had driven 90 miles to the clinic with her daughter, "broke down into hysterics," Braun said. "She was inconsolable."
"Had she made the trip one day earlier or not had to make two trips to the clinic because of HB2, we could have helped her," Braun continued. "Instead, this family of limited financial means was left with very few options. All I could do was cry with her, give her some phone numbers, and refund her fee so at least they had enough money to drive back to Oklahoma. I don't know what happened to her, but I will never forget her as long as I shall live."
I've talked to patients who were distraught and suicidal because they couldn't access the abortion care they needed.
When women are turned away from abortion providers, they have three options. They can travel a long distance to access safe and legal abortion if they are able to. If they can't afford to make the trip to the next nearest clinic, they can either carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, or they can resort to unsafe and illegal alternative: illegally obtained abortion pills, herbs, or blunt force to the womb.
According to research from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, hundreds of thousands of women in Texas have tried inducing abortions at home. Anecdotally, Duncan's experience indicates that this practice may be on the rise. "The first week after the law changed, we started seeing an increase in patients who had tried something to end their pregnancy before coming to the clinic," she said. "I've also talked to patients who were distraught and suicidal because they couldn't access the abortion care they needed."
As legislation similar to HB2 takes root across the South and Midwest, we're left with large swaths of the country in which women's constitutional right to abortion care is a right in name only. Research shows that restricting abortion access doesn't make abortion less common—it just makes it less safe. "This law denies Texas women their dignity and exposes them to unnecessary health risks without any corresponding benefits," said Saporta. "We're not fooled by HB2's flimsy disguise as a measure to protect women's health."
"It's shameful, it's cowardly, it's ignorant," said Braun. "Anti-choice politicians must not continue to hide behind HB2 while they destroy the lives and futures of the women in Texas."