How Politicians Have Reduced Access to Reproductive Healthcare in Texas

By Laila Khalili
TFN Student Activist

UPDATE: On Oct. 14 the Supreme Court temporarily barred Texas from enforcing the ambulatory surgical center requirement. Additionally, Texas may not enforce the admitting privileges requirement on the clinics in McAllen and El Paso.

In the summer of 2013, Texans flocked to the state capitol in unprecedented numbers to give testimony on an omnibus anti-abortion bill known as HB2. More than two thousand Texans signed up to testify, most of whom were denied a chance to speak. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered the bill for 11 hours and was able to do so because she had one thing: binders full of personal abortion stories, each one distinctly remarkable and powerful beyond measure.

HB2 is just one of many pieces of legislation specifically designed to restrict access to reproductive healthcare. In 2003, Texas passed the Women’s Right To Know Act, requiring abortions after 16 weeks to be performed in an ambulatory surgical center (ASC), and creating a 24-hour waiting period. In 2011, this legislation was amended to include mandatory ultrasounds in which the patient must hear the heartbeat and a description of their pregnancy, which can be an incredibly traumatizing experience. The Texas Legislature also cut funding to the state’s Women’s Health Program (WHP) in 2011, shuttering over forty health clinics. According to the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition, this move cut off “preventive care, including well-woman examinations, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and contraception for 147,000 low-income women.”

Further reducing access to healthcare, HB2 bans abortion after 20 weeks, requires all abortions to be performed in an ASC and abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, and has restrictions on telemedicine.

“Communities along the U.S.- Mexico border are among the regions most negatively impacted by recent anti-choice legislation that goes far beyond limiting a person’s choice to terminate a pregnancy,” said Rubén Garza, a TFN field organizer in the Rio Grande Valley. “In communities like the Rio Grande Valley, with one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, anti-choice laws have also severely restricted critical services by cutting funding for basic health care programs and limiting resources for sex ed and family planning.”

Lupita Villanueva, an activist at the University of Texas-El Paso, explained that for women in her community, options are quickly disappearing.

“It is only getting dimmer and tougher for women in the county of El Paso, and just because new laws are in place it does not stop women from pursuing alternative routes to get an abortion,” Villanueva said. “For women of very little means, which are numerous in my community due to immigration, employment, and various other issues, many have to make arduous arrangements to get an abortion.”

El Paso had two clinics that provided abortion services, but one of them had to close in April of 2014 as a result of HB2.

“Women in El Paso have to drive to New Mexico or East Texas and we do not have the means or the time to travel,” Villanueva added. “The current obstacles in place make women in my community feel ashamed, discouraged and hopeless for a decision they are sure of and have already made.”

On August 29th federal Judge Lee Yeakel said what health care advocates have been saying all along, stating “The act’s ambulatory surgical center requirement places an unconstitutional undue burden on women throughout Texas.” As expected, the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott filed for an appeal and, unsurprisingly, the 5th Circuit ruled to uphold all of HB2. This ruling left Texas with only eight legal abortion clinics, meaning 750,000 Texas women of reproductive age now live more than 200 miles away from an abortion clinic.

If you were 9 months pregnant and wanted to deliver your baby in a hospital, or needed life saving surgery, or an organ transplant, what would you say if the nearest capable facility was more than 200 miles away? This is the reality for Texans seeking abortion, and it was orchestrated by our elected officials. To be clear, this legislation has obliterated access to safe and legal abortion, and without access, there is no choice.

The Texas Freedom Network Student Leadership Council, a group of passionate college students across Texas, is facing this crisis head on to advocate for reproductive justice.

TFN activists are organizing on their campuses with the 1 in 3 campaign, whose name comes from the statistic that one in three people will have an abortion in their lifetime.

“The goal of the campaign is to end stigma around the procedure through the power of storytelling. We are planning events, like abortion speak-outs, that will amplify that goal in an effort to foster productive dialogue around the issue,” explained Holly Doyle, an activist at Texas State University.

Storytelling as a strategy has proved to be an effective way to reach voters, and has galvanized an abortion rights movement in Texas marked by empathy and understanding. Listening to politicians give X number of reasons why abortion should be illegal is not nearly as powerful as learning one person near and dear to your heart had an abortion. Abortion stories are real, lived experiences and they put a face to policies being debated behind closed doors. When we speak out and share our truths, we can change the way people perceive abortion and the way policy is made.

In 2013, Texans chose to break the silence and use their voices at the capitol, igniting a national conversation about the right of each person to make their own health care decisions. Today, TFN activists are planning events and collecting stories with the hope of empowering their peers to speak out and to be more compassionate to those who do.

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