The Impact of HB2* on Women of Color

The national media missed its chance to cover the SB5 debate and filibuster in real time. Despite being contacted by hundreds of pro-choice activists, the cameras didn’t start rolling until after Tuesday night. Now that the battle against restrictive abortion laws in Texas is receiving national attention, Senator Wendy Davis is at the core of almost every report. Though Sen. Davis took an incredible stand for the women of Texas, her story is not the only story. 

In the House, the battle to delay a vote on SB5 was controlled almost entirely by women of color. Representatives Dukes, Farrar, Gonzalez, Allen, González, and Thompson were responsible for offering amendment after amendment to SB5 – all rejected without debate. The bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, not only refused to answer questions on the floor about the bill, but refused to take the mike to enter her Motion to Table each amendment. As a result, Democratic legislators were left debating themselves on the merits of proposed amendments.

Representative Mary González, who introduced amendments that proposed delaying implementation of the bill until Texas reduced its repeat teen pregnancy rate to 15%, said “I have seen bills where they didn’t allow amendments because it wouldn’t pass the Senate again, but I’ve never seen someone refuse to answer questions. It was very disappointing that Rep. Laubenberg forced us to debate ourselves on such an important issue.”

The SB5 debate in the House stretched on until almost 4 a.m. on Monday morning, hard fought by female Democratic Representatives attempting to force Rep. Laubenberg and her colleagues to engage in real, fact-based debate on the bill. The House debate continued into early Monday morning, leaving the Senate unable to take up the bill until Tuesday due to a required 24 hour waiting period. No small accomplishment, this 24 hour delay meant that only 13 hours of legislative time remained in the special session – an amount of time that Sen. Davis could feasibly filibuster.

Though the efforts of Democratic Representatives in the House were crucial to Sen. Davis’ filibuster, there was little conversation about the role that women of color played in the battle against SB5. Most media coverage of the SB5 battle focused on a single narrative: that of Sen. Davis’ filibuster and the globally trending hashtag #StandWithWendy.

“I don’t think it’s about whether or not we were interviewed. Representative Dukes, Representative Farrar and I were definitely talked about. The problem with national media is its inability to move beyond a single identity. They pick women legislators to focus on; Democratic legislators; they never entertain the idea that we’re women of color,” said González.

González’s comment that “the media doesn’t apply an intersectional lens” to issues isn’t just reflected in the lack of discussion about the women of color who were crucial to preventing SB5 passage – it’s paralleled in the way that national media outlets talk about the potential impact of SB5 and other restrictions on abortion.

The SB5 requirement that abortion clinics meet the same standards as Ambulatory Surgical Centers (ASCs) would force 37 of Texas’ 42 abortion providers to close, leaving only five clinics open to cover 268,581 square miles. These clinics provide not only abortion services, but birth control, STD screenings, cancer screenings, HIV testing, pregnancy testing, the morning after pill, and other healthcare services. For women in major metropolitan areas like Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, this provision of the bill might not prove disastrous. Certainly, it would be more difficult to schedule an abortion before the 20 week mark with hundreds of women from smaller towns flocking to the same clinics, but there would be a clinic within a three hour drive. For women who live in border towns, rural areas, and cities like El Paso, there would be no clinics in the immediate area, forcing women to choose between a costly multi-day trip to San Antonio or a trip over the border for a considerably riskier abortion in Mexico.

Abortion in Mexico is a dangerous proposition: legal and accessible only during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in Mexico City, abortion has been outlawed in 18 Mexican states. Studies indicate that although punishment for an abortion in Mexico depends on the state in which a woman undergoes the procedure, 127 women have been prosecuted for receiving an abortion over the last five years. Because abortion is illegal in so many Mexican states, women often turn to pharmacies that don’t ask questions before prescribing Misoprostol, to flea markets, where the pills are sometimes available, or to unregulated abortion clinics.

Women of color and women living in rural areas would be affected by SB5 and bills like it far more harshly than any other demographic. Legislation that attempts to offer affordable healthcare to women in rural areas or women with low income is not only unpopular in the Texas legislature – it’s impossible to get out of committee. Legislation that addresses teen pregnancy and aims to reduce unwanted pregnancies is “completely off the table for the GOP,” González said.

But in a world (this one) where Texas is currently ranked 4th highest in the nation in terms of teen pregnancies, the GOP’s unwillingness to look at the intersectionality between race, poverty, and education contributes directly to the problem. In 2010, 78% of pregnant teens in Texas were women of color. Offering preventative healthcare options to reduce unwanted pregnancies in both teens and adults might seem like common sense – but it’s simply not an option in the GOP-dominated Texas legislature.

Nancy Cardenas, a women’s rights activist from the Valley, made the trip to Austin for the SB5 hearings and debates. “It’s hard to hear male Republicans impose their blatant religious agenda on bills like SB5. They are under the impression that women who choose to have abortions are confused. Abortions will still happen. Women do not need to be guided by Republicans through one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. Trust women,” said Cardenas.

González commented that she “introduced two pieces of legislation in regular session to solve this, and it wouldn’t even get a committee hearing. To them, it’s so far removed from their reality. 20% of my district didn’t graduate high school, and a lot of that is because of repeat teen pregnancies. Those things are correlated – I can’t just ignore it. It impacts not only teen pregnancy rates but educational access, healthcare access, and economic stability. ”

The attitude of the GOP exacerbates the already existing structural problems that make it more difficult for women of color to access safe abortions. During the SB5 filibuster, almost no Spanish-speaking media covered the week’s events. Univision broadcast one report on SB5, but it was far from impartial or balanced coverage, urging women in the Valley to call the local Dioceses for more information about SB5. “The absence of Spanish speaking media throughout the process of the SB5 debates is alarming, and the absence of media attention on women in the House is even more striking,” said Cardenas. “The media has always found a way to exclude minority women from the spotlight they are entitled to. Although in Austin we know these women well, their actions are tossed aside by the media.”

There were thousands of pro-choice activists present for committee hearings and floor debates, but few women of color spoke during the opportunities for public testimony. Cardenas pointed out that “the absence of women from the Valley and El Paso during the protests is in no way shape or form an example of disinterest. It only proves that women from rural areas cannot access the only cities that will be left with centers that provide important health exams and safe abortions. If women from the Valley and El Paso could not make it for debates about the most restrictive piece of anti-abortion legislation that has been proposed in the Texas Legislature, they will not be able to afford the trip to Dallas, San Antonio, or Houston for a safe and legal abortion.”

There’s one thing that all pro-choice activists and legislators can agree on. Limiting access to abortion won’t stop it from happening, but it will make it more dangerous. “I can maybe understand people who are ‘pro-life’ but what’s more frustrating is that there’s not even a possibility of compromise for rural women, women on the border, or rape and incest survivors,” said González. “If you’ve been raped, you should be able to decide the outcome of that situation. This is a Constitutional right, and the GOP won’t engage in a serious conversation about how to address problems like teen pregnancies.”

*Interviews done for this piece were about SB5, but there is no substantive difference between the regulations contained in SB5 and HB2.

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House Committee Hearing on HB2 & Diverse Needs of Texan Women

There has been some truly incredible testimony tonight at the Senate committee hearing, and there are many quotes that I would like to honor and remember as the days of the second special tick by, but that testimony — though moving and brilliantly compelling — isn’t what I wanted to share with y’all. A “pro-life” young woman stood up tonight and remarked that she didn’t need “reproductive justice or free birth control,” and the privilege in her statement was absolutely stunning. I don’t mean to attack this one young woman; her sentiment is shared by many. But there are some fundamental problems that were evident in her testimony that reflect a larger lack of understanding on the part of “pro life” activists who seek to curtail our access to affordable abortion care.

It was obvious from her testimony that though she talked about “crisis pregnancies,” she had no understanding of what it really means to be pregnant with nowhere to turn. Nor did this young women understand that just because she “doesn’t need free birth control,” that doesn’t mean that there aren’t women who do desperately need free or low-cost birth control. I work two jobs during the summer and one during the year, paying for a private school in Washington state, rent, utilities, and all other bills. I’m lucky enough to have supportive parents who help me when I can’t quite cover everything — but I certainly can’t afford the $100 per month sticker price of my birth control prescription. Keep in mind that I’m a white, middle class, young woman — and without clinics like Planned Parenthood, birth control would be unaffordable for me.

Now think about all of the factors that complicate access to birth control — both in terms of financial resources and community support — and it’s not hard to understand why so many women are fiercely defending their right to affordable and accessible health care; their right to make their own healthcare decisions. Women of color in Texas often grow up in conservative communities, where abortion and birth control are taboo subjects for young women. On top of that, there are far fewer free or low-cost clinics in rural and border areas than there are in major metropolitan areas like Houston, Dallas, and Austin. It’s curious to me — and I know I’m not the only one — that women of color are already operating with far fewer choices than their white counterparts in big cities. Certainly there are women of color in these big cities as well — but the number of women of color disproportionately affected by bills like HB2 is astronomical. When posed as a question to GOP committee members, the disproportionate effect of HB2 on young women of color has been dismissed time and time again by pointing out that “it’s possible that some clinics will stay open.” If those speaking in favor of HB2 were truly pro-choice, they would understand that sometimes a woman’s life depends on her ability to access affordable birth control. Sometimes a woman’s life depends on her ability to access affordable abortion services. For many women in abusive relationships, the windows of opportunity to seek abortion services are few and far between — often forcing women past the 20 week mark. I challenge Rep. Laubenberg or any of her anti-choice colleagues to look a young woman in the eyes and tell her that she can’t have an abortion because the only day she could get to the clinic without notice from her abusive partner was past the 20 week mark.

Once you factor those things into your determination about whether or not sexual healthcare is easily accessible for all women in Texas, factor in other circumstances that can prevent a woman of any race from being able to access abortion or preventative health care: rape, incest, a significantly lower income than the national average, less information about safe birth control choices, abusive partners, and physical or mental disabilities. Women seeking birth control or an abortion likely often already have young children — remember that most women who get abortions are already mothers, many of whom have decided that they don’t have the ability or desire to care for an additional child. Should HB2 pass, you would be asking mothers to place their own welfare, and that of their children, below the welfare of a cluster of cells that might, one day, become a person. Should HB2 pass, you’re asking those same mothers to forgo affordable birth control or cancer screenings  because the clinics that once provided those services also provided abortions.

Just because that young woman and her “friends in blue” can afford to pay sticker price for birth control, HPV screenings and vaccines, STD testing, pregnancy tests, condoms, and other preventative healthcare doesn’t mean that all — or even most — women in Texas can afford those services. That Texas is ranked the 4th highest in the US for teen pregnancies should tell you something: abstinence-only education and inaccessible birth control just isn’t working. We should be wary when the bills we pass become law without any consideration for the diverse needs of the women of Texas.