Back-Alley Legislation: How Half of Texas’ Abortion Clinics Were Shut Down Under Shady Pretenses
It's become much harder for women in Texas to find family planning services since a 2013 law placed restrictions on when and where abortions can be performed, resulting in the closure of half the Lone Star State's clinics.
Texas' abortion providers have dwindled to 20, down from 41 last May, according to pro-choice advocates, owing to a piece of the law mandating that all clinic physicians have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital. On Sept. 1, all abortion clinics will have to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, which are "mini hospitals" used for minor surgeries. This could close all but six abortion providers in the state.
The law's proponents say it promotes legal and safe abortions. Opponents point out first-trimester abortions involve an extremely safe procedure; 0.05 percent of patients experience a complication that might necessitate a hospital visit.
"The ASC law is medically unjustified," said Esha Bhandari, staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Forcing women to travel long distances needlessly, to go through the stress of finding the resources, taking time off work—none of that helps women."
For a lot of women, losing clinics means losing affordable access to specific health services, including pap smears, STI screenings, and contraception. Thirty percent of working-age Texas women are uninsured, but insurance may be less important than ever. The Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling set a precedent whereby "closely held" corporations don't have to provide certain forms of contraception coverage to their workers if doing so violates the companies' religious beliefs. That may cost insured women their contraceptives too.
Texans aren't taking these restrictions lying down. The CRR, alongside several abortion providers, have filed a lawsuit to block the ASC part of the bill, which would save most of the remaining clinics from shuttering. The lawsuit claims that the bill imposes unjust and unique regulations on abortion providers, that the rules aren't consistent with medical standards, and that implementing them would drastically reduce the ability for Texas women to access safe and legal abortion services.
"[The bill]'s imposing all of these costs on women for no health benefit at all," says Bhandari. "That suggests that the only reason to pass these laws is to actually make it more difficult for women to access abortion services."
So far, that is the case. One Texas woman told Whole Woman's Health that she drove nine hours to Louisiana to terminate a pregnancy she couldn't afford.
The lawsuit also challenges the admittance privilege laws for two clinics, one in McAllen and one in El Paso. The clinics performed 14,000 and 17,000 abortions, respectively, in the last decade. Only two patients needed transport to a hospital, and both were seen and treated just as the law mandates. Advocates say that that proves admittance privileges are more bureaucratic red tape than protective measures. Both clinics are closed for the moment, and NPR points out that there are no longer clinics in East Texas or the Rio Grande Valley.
An earlier lawsuit brought by the CRR protesting the admittance regulation is awaiting trial.
Senate Democrats recently introduced a bill that would make it illegal to single out abortion providers in medical regulatory laws. The Women's Health Protection Act provides protection for institutions suffering from targeted antiabortion legislature. For now, it looks unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House.
Even so, the Women's Health Protection Act and the CRR lawsuit are important for the long-term fight against the oppression of women's freedom to choose. Protecting women's safety is important, but in this case, the legislation may do more harm than good.