When It Comes to Abortion Rights in Texas, ‘It Could Be Worse’ Isn’t Good Enough
Texas’ anti-choice lawmakers—almost all Republicans, joined by a few Democrats—have spent the last decade and a half or so chipping away abortion access in the state. Yet every session, we're told to be thankful something more restrictive didn't make it to the governor's desk.
We’re going to talk about abortion. I promise. But I want to talk about dinosaurs first.
See, there’s this scene in the original Jurassic Park film that I love.
Before everything goes to prehistoric hell in the handbasket of human hubris, the park’s mastermind, Hammond, gives Doctors Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm a perhaps ill-advised look at raptor feeding time. This is where we first meet Muldoon, the strapping raptor-handler who foreshadows the trouble to come by talking about the alpha-raptor’s incredible intelligence. He’s clearly developed a healthy fear of this “clever girl.”
Here’s the dialogue:
Muldoon: When she looks at you, you can tell she’s working things out. That’s why we have to feed them like this. She had them all attacking the fences when the feeders came.
Dr. Sattler: The fences are electrified though, right?
Muldoon: That’s right, but they never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically. They remember.
I’ve been thinking about this scene ever since the end of this year’s Texas legislative session, a session wherein, according to mainstream media reports, anti-abortion lawmakers passed “just one” anti-abortion law, because they’re “nearly out of ideas for abortion restrictions.”
Texas’ anti-choice lawmakers—almost all Republicans, joined by a few Democrats—have spent the last decade and a half or so testing the fences. Fifteen years ago, lawmakers started by restricting minors’ access to legal abortion care with the first iteration of Texas’ judicial bypass process. Then in 2003, they put forced, medically incorrect speech into doctors’ mouths via the state-mandated “Woman’s Right to Know” pre-abortion procedure booklet that wrongly links abortion with breast cancer. In the mid-aughts, they passed a law that prevents abortion providers or “affiliates” from receiving public funds. Then in 2011, they passed a mandatory pre-abortion sonogram law.
And then in 2013 they passed HB 2, a multi-pronged omnibus bill that contains the most restrictive combination of anti-abortion regulations in the country, an amalgamation of proposals that had not previously succeeded on their own. HB 2, challenges to which are currently on their way to the Supreme Court, bans abortion after 20 weeks, makes medication abortions logistically near-impossible to prescribe, requires abortion-providing doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, and mandates that abortion clinics operate as hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers.
Omnibus bills are difficult to fight, in part, because they require so much effort and energy when resources are already spread thin. (Raptors in the kitchen! T-Rex in the atrium! That little screamy fellow who spits poison in the jungle!) Anti-choice lawmakers figured out that you don’t need to waste time futzing with the fence if you can knock out power to the entire system all at once.
And… they remember.
This year, we got HB 3994, that supposed “just one” anti-abortion law that passed in Texas’ 84th legislature (which is factually incorrect, by the way, as lawmakers also passed a TRAP law requiring abortion providers to take training on human trafficking).
HB 3994 is yet another omnibus bill that includes a whole host of provisions proposed in one-off bills filed throughout the session. It requires Texans who need abortion care to provide a government-issued ID for proof of age to their doctors or risk being reported to the Department of State Health Services, and it restricts the existing judicial bypass process to the extent that experts believe it will ultimately prevent the vast majority of abused and neglected minors with unplanned pregnancies, known in the court system as “Jane Does,” from being able to make a decision to end their pregnancies.
“Jane Does” can ask a judge to stand in for their parents in granting permission for them to seek abortion care if getting that parental consent would put them in danger. But HB 3994 will ensure that if these “Jane Does” are indeed being abused by their parents, their decision to seek legal abortion care will be reported to those same parents via mandated law enforcement intervention, effectively nullifying the entire point of the judicial bypass process.
It is a brutal bully of a bill that targets Texans who have no political recourse—they are, by virtue of their age, too young to vote—while allowing mean-spirited religious ideologues like Sen. Van Taylor (as seen here at 1:58) to scoff at the idea that some teenagers, indeed some children, experience sexual abuse in their own families.
But in reading legislative wrap-up coverage of the session, I got the sense that media onlookers were keeping a scorecard with categories for “wins” and “losses” with regard to reproductive rights—scorecards that seem inadequate to describe the aggregate impact of the bills.
The Texas Tribune seemed almost miffed by the fact that the deeply conservative 2015 legislature didn’t pass numerically more abortion bills than in previous sessions. The vastly over-quoted political scientist to whom the Trib turned to for a crack recap of the session’s reproductive politics even called HB 3994 “symbolic.” Here’s his take, which is the lead quote in the piece:
“If we look back at the 2013 session, [abortion opponents] were so successful that there was almost no room for additional success this session,” said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “So they were left with trying to reduce the number of abortions at the very margins, which then became far more symbolic than anything else.”
Never have I thought of forcing anyone, let alone an abused minor, to carry an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy to term as “symbolic,” but this is how we talk about abortion politics in Texas. Every time the anti-choice right doesn’t get literally everything it wants, the press runs to the reproductive rights crowd to gauge how grateful they are for just a little bit of oppression, instead of all the oppression.
This same thing happened in 2013, before Republicans broke their promise not to pass any new abortion restrictions. That year, before the GOP and their Democratic allies launched full-tilt into an anti-choice frenzy with the legislation that would become HB 2, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal called the session a time of “rare harmony,” because even though lawmakers had proposed all manner of new abortion restrictions, none of them had made it to the governor’s desk.
Rare harmony. For not actively doing more to force people to stay pregnant against their will.
The same pattern emerged this year. Despite the fact that HB 3994 is a legal monstrosity that does not provide the expeditious and confidential process required for a bypass law to pass muster, and that has a built-in denial that amounts, in no uncertain terms, to an unconstitutional, arbitrary veto of a minor’s petition for a bypass. Despite the fact that Planned Parenthood was again cut out of providing publicly funded reproductive health care. Despite the fact that abortion providers are now the only Texas medical professionals required to take human trafficking training. Reporters still wanted to know whether those in the pro-choice crowd were looking back on the session with the appropriate humble gratitude.
Hell, the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal appears to have actually worked up the astounding gall to ask NARAL Pro-Choice Texas’ executive director Heather Busby whether she was happy with the moves from the 84th legislature. She told him:
“What is to be happy about?” asked Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “HB 3994 is devastating to abused and neglected teens, to orphans. It is a very cruel bill. There’s nothing to be happy about.”
This idea that because anti-choice lawmakers could have done more damage, pro-choice Texans and Texans who fight for reproductive justice ought to be glad that it wasn’t worse… boy howdy is that a song I’m real fucking tired of having sung at me.
I’m also gobsmacked when reproductive rights groups join in the chorus. Imagine me staring agog at my inbox a few weeks ago, when the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition (TWHC) announced it was naming state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) a “Women’s Health Hero” for the second biennium in a row. Yes, that Jane Nelson. The one who cast the first vote against establishing a Medicaid Women’s Health Program in Texas in 2011. She is also a co-author of the bill that became HB 2, an architect of Texas lawmakers’ 2011 cuts to family planning funds, and a relentlessly smarmy career politician who in 2013 hired washed-up pop country singer Sammy Kershaw to fundraise for the publicly funded family planning program she and her colleagues intentionally tore apart two years prior.
She’s a “Women’s Health Hero.”
A representative for the TWHC told me that because the organization is interested solely in preventive reproductive health-care access, Nelson received the award for her work adding more money to the state’s family planning budget this session. She has effectively been given a gold star just for making half-assed attempts to repair damage that she herself is partially responsible for.
If Jane Nelson is a “hero,” there be no villains in Texas.
I respect the TWHC, and I am saddened to see the passionate folks who work at the organization repeatedly pandering to lawmakers like Jane Nelson. But this is the political landscape we’re navigating: Anti-choice lawmakers can preen about their “Women’s Health Hero” awards because advocates for reproductive rights are constantly scrambling for petty scraps, afraid of provoking those ready and willing to make things worse.
And anti-choice lawmakers openly threaten to do just that whenever Democrats really come close to killing bad bills, or dedicate themselves to seriously challenging them. It happened just last month when HB 3994, this year’s omnibus judicial bypass bill, was up for debate in the Texas house. The GOP told Democrats they could either stop challenging the bill and let the dominant party get away with it as-written, or keep resisting it while Republicans tacked on “very divisive” amendments that would be certain to make it even more restrictive.
The petulance in that kind of attitude is appalling. If I’m really honest, it echoes the kind of emotional hostage-taking we often see in abusive relationships. And it belies anti-choice lawmakers’ claims that they’re at all concerned about “health and safety,” or predominantly interested in protecting “life.” The “health and safety” they are ultimately concerned with is that of their own political careers, the “life” of which they intend to extend as long as possible.
But what’s most frustrating to me is the fact that these understandable attempts at harm reduction and appeasement from a disempowered political left are ultimately impotent strategies when the opposing party, which grows stronger with every election, has no intention of stopping until it gets what it wants.
Anti-choice lawmakers could not possibly have made their intentions clearer: they intend to shut down abortion facilities. They intend to make legal abortion care “a thing of the past. They intend to “push every legal decision until Roe vs. Wade is overturned.”
Yet year after year, session after session, Texas progressives negotiate and compromise with people who have one singular goal in mind: the end of legal abortion care in Texas, and then in the United States. We may slow progress on these measures, and I am thankful for small victories, but I am tearing my hair out as I ask the question: At what cost? How many years of our lives, of Texan lives, have we given to providing lawmakers with the time to make us accustomed to our own oppression?
I cannot and will not say, “Back down and let them decimate us, let the people see what damage these monsters would do unchecked.”
Because I am thankful for every scrap we get when bad legislation is slowed or diluted. I still am thankful for every teensy piece that may mean a woman from Brownsville gets that critical mammogram; that means a teenage trans boy who survived a “corrective rape” by his own father gets a chance at planning his own future; that means somebody, somewhere, was able to make it to the clinic in time. I am thankful that more people are not dying more quickly.
I hate this terrible gratitude.
But appeasement is not a sustainable option. By definition, it just isn’t. Anti-choice lawmakers aren’t stopping until they get Roe v. Wade overturned. That’s their plan. They don’t care who knows it. It is the entire goal.
“It could have been worse!” doesn’t pay for an abortion at a clinic 300 miles away. “It could have been worse!” doesn’t detect cervical cancer. “It could have been worse!” doesn’t prevent unplanned pregnancy.
We need new strategies. Strategies that go beyond appeasement and beyond politics, a game that’s been deliberately rigged by right-wing legislators who are happy to cheat to keep their seats. We can hope the courts rule in favor of the most marginalized Texans, but we cannot simply wait and see. We can cheer on lawmakers who are stemming the tide and making incremental change, but they cannot be our only defense.
Which is why I’m heartened to see Texans taking a stand for reproductive freedom outside the capitol—folks like Amy Hagstrom Miller and Amanda Williams over at Shift, like the dozens of Texas abortion funders who spend hours monitoring hotlines and working out logistics to help Texans travel hundreds of miles for legal abortion care, and like the Latinas in the Rio Grande Valley who are sharing knowledge about how to induce miscarriage with misoprostol outside of a clinical setting.
Their work gives me hope when I’m damn tired of being told that things could always be worse, of narratives that focus solely on political wranglings in Austin at the expense of the actual Texans whose lives could be changed—or ended—on a whim. Because every year, things always get worse. Every session, I’m told to be thankful for something that didn’t happen, only to wait a year or two and see it come to fruition anyway. Now, we’re just nine judges away from leaving Texas with just nine legal abortion providers to serve 27 million people.
It is strange, even cruel, to be repeatedly asked if you’re glad you haven’t yet fallen over the cliff’s edge when what you need is to get off the fucking mountain.