Texas abortion law creates obstacles for Valley women

This article was originally published on USA Today.

The women who visit Lucy Felix at her advocacy center are lately faced with a slate of difficult choices: risk deportation to drive to a clinic, cross the nearby border into Mexico for a risky abortion or keep an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy to term.

Since Texas lawmakers passed new restrictions on abortion clinics last year, the number of clinics in the Rio Grande Valley that perform the service has dropped from two to zero, forcing women to drive more than 300 miles roundtrip to other cities for services or attempt riskier procedures across the border.

In the Valley, the poorest and neediest part of the state, the law is crippling women’s rights to abortions, said Felix, a Brownsville-based field coordinator with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

“They have to make really drastic decisions,” she said of the women she talks to. “They don’t have the same access and the same freedom other women have.”

Under Texas House Bill 2, doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at area hospitals, abortions past 20 weeks are banned, and abortion clinics must have ambulatory surgical centers. The law came on the heels of an earlier legislative action that slashed more than $70 million from the state’s family planning budget, which helps fund clinics such as Planned Parenthood in Texas.

The new abortion law spurred an international outcry on social media sites such as Twitter, sparked a march on the state capitol during its debate in Austin and has been challenged in federal court by pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights. A federal judge in Austin is expected to hear one of those cases in August.

In the wake of the new guidelines, the number of licensed abortion facilities in Texas dropped from 41 in 2011 to 24 today, according to the state Department of State Health Services. When the portion of the law requiring ambulatory surgical centers kicks in on Sept. 1, that number could fall to six.

Supporters of the law say the measures are long-overdue to ensure the health and safety of women seeking abortions. The clinics that have closed have done so voluntarily and the new rules will safeguard against health violations at abortion clinics, said Joe Pojman, executive director of the non-profit, pro-life group Texas Alliance for Life.

“The state of Texas is not closing these abortion facilities,” Pojman said. “The abortion facilities are deciding they do not wish to provide the new health and safety standards the state requires.”

But the closing clinics often can’t afford the costly additions required by the law and amount to unlawful restrictions of abortion rights guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court, said Julie Rikelman, legislative director of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Texas is one of more than a dozen states across the USA, including Georgia and Arkansas, that are using state restrictions to chip away at federally-guaranteed abortion rights, she said.

Medical groups such as the Texas Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have opposed provisions of the law, Rikelman said.

“These admitting privileges laws are not being pushed by doctors or medical organizations,” she said. “They are being pushed by anti-choice politicians. It’s not about women’s health. It’s about choking off access to legal abortion services.”

One of the most vulnerable areas under the new law is the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest parts of the state running from Brownsville to Rio Grande City along the Mexican border and home to about 275,000 reproductive age women, according to Ibis Reproductive Health, a non-profit group that studies women’s health issues.

After the law passed, two area abortion clinics – one in McAllen, the other in Harlingen – closed, leaving Corpus Christi, 160 miles away, as the nearest alternative, said Dan Grossman, an Oakland-based researcher for Ibis that has been examining Texas women’s access to abortions in the wake of the restrictions. After Sept. 1, the Corpus clinic is expected to close, as well.

Besides being more costly, highway trips to Corpus Christi or San Antonio for abortion services pass through Border Patrol checkpoints, which deters many women who don’t have proper immigration status, he said in an email. Some women in the Rio Grande Valley are turning to other alternatives, including self-induced abortions by way of drugs such as misoprostol, herbs or being hit in the abdomen, he said.

“The effect of all of this is that women who are able to obtain an abortion are often delayed in the process, possibly into the second trimester of pregnancy when abortion has higher risks,” Grossman said.

In Brownsville, Felix said she has counseled women who have gone to Mexico for abortion services. Abortion is illegal in some parts of Mexico but the women know where to go to obtain illegal procedures or the pill for self-induced abortions, she said.

Instead of taking such drastic measures, Felix encourages the women to write letters to local newspapers or their state legislators, urging them to return the services to the Valley.

“If we want to be a healthy state, we need healthy women,” she said. “The woman is the backbone of the family … That’s why we need these services back.”

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