The Mess in Texas

07.16.13

Texas’s Unwanted-Baby Boom

Between the state's anti-abortion bill, its move to defund contraception providers, and its war on sex education, experts predict tens of thousands of unplanned pregnancies next year.

The war on women is a nationwide phenomenon, but nowhere are women in more danger of having their reproductive health undermined at every turn than in Texas. Under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry and a Republican Party completely in the thrall of the religious right, Christian fundamentalists have launched a three-pronged attack on the well-being of women of the state: undermine access to contraception by eliminating government funding of it, eradicate sex education so that young people don’t know how to use contraception effectively, and shut down abortion clinics so that women cannot safely and legally terminate all those unwanted pregnancies. As a result, being a woman in Texas is now a very different proposition than being a woman in a more liberal state like New York, creating the sort of inequality between citizens based on nothing but geography.

The recent filibuster of a massive abortion bill during the first special session of the state legislature in Texas drew national attention to the attacks on abortion access in the state. While Republicans lost that round, their determination to wage war on Texas women didn’t wane, and Perry called another special session, this one just for the purpose of eliminating most of the abortion providers in the state and all providers for those living in the western half of Texas, which includes major urban areas like El Paso, Lubbock, and Midland-Odessa, as well as the entire Rio Grande Valley area. The requirements, a hodgepodge of regulations including bogus admitting privilege requirements and utterly unnecessary demands that clinics meet state standards for ambulatory surgical centers, are projected to shut down 37 of the state’s 42 clinics.

The impact of this loss would be severe for Texas women. In 2008 84,610 women had abortions in Texas, for a rate of 16.5 abortions for every 1,000 women of reproductive age. That means each individual clinic is seeing dozens of patients a week, but the number per clinic of women trying to get abortions will expand exponentially if most of the state’s clinics close. That makes it impossible for all the women, or even most of the women, who need an abortion to get one—something anti-choice legislators are counting on.

Anti-abortion activists would have you believe that the thousands upon thousands of women who want abortions but can’t get them will be turned into either happy, glowing mothers or saintly birth mothers giving their babies up for adoption as a result of this sudden loss of access. The truth is much darker. Already declining access in the state has created a black market for abortion. Women go to Mexico to buy ulcer medications that induce miscarriage and are available over the counter, or even at flea markets, and often end up in abortion clinics anyway, trying to fix the half-aborted pregnancy that results because they took the wrong dosage. If more clinics disappear, it could turn this haphazard strategy into a major underground, quasi-legal operation. Unfortunately, thanks to the new anti-abortion legislation, there won’t be clinics there to clean up the damage, and women might have to press their luck in emergency rooms instead.

Of course, there will be plenty of women unable or afraid to take matters into their own hands and therefore forced to bear children against their will. And while this is exactly what anti-choicers want, let’s be clear: they have no desire to deal with the negative outcomes of this.

After all, Texas is already suffering the ill effects from the last brilliant idea that Perry and the Texas GOP ginned up to advance the religious-right agenda by undermining women’s access to contraception and abortion. Texas Republicans have been slashing family-planning funding and, in an unprecedented attack on contraception access, rejected $30 million in Medicaid funding that’s earmarked for contraception and gynecological care—money that explicitly cannot go to abortion—in a direct attempt to shut down as many affordable family-planning clinics (like Planned Parenthood) as possible. There was some weak abortion-related excuse, because many of these clinics also offer abortion, but in the end, it was simply an expansion of a longstanding campaign against contraception use by the anti-choice movement, a campaign that’s most well known for introducing anti-contraception propaganda into classrooms under the guise of “abstinence-only education.”

The result of this whimsical experiment in separating women from their contraception was not widespread recommitment to abstinence, despite Perry’s jovial insistence that it’s the only acceptable option for those who aren’t in a procreative spirit. The state’s health commission projects a drastic rise in the unplanned birth rate, predicting 24,000 extra unplanned births in 2014–15. That’s just counting the ones who don’t manage to get an abortion in time. A little under half of women who have an unplanned pregnancy abort it, so we can expect to see that projected number rise precipitously if this abortion bill is passed—though by how much is hard to say, because it’s impossible to know how many women will go out of state or avail themselves of black- and gray-market drugs to abort pregnancies in lieu of seeing safe, legal providers within the state. Right now the projected excess of 24,000 births is expected to cost taxpayers $273 million just in Medicaid costs; with the thousands more that added that wanted but couldn’t get an abortion, the cost to the taxpayer will also blow up.

Not that Texas Republicans seem to care too much about how this will hurt women, children, and taxpayers. They’re too worried that there are still young people in the state that think they get to have sex like they’re free human beings with rights. During the debate over the abortion bill before the July Fourth holiday, a Democratic state representative, Donna Howard, expressed a desire to improve contraception education for young people in order to lower the demand for abortion in the first place. Her Republican colleagues angrily disagreed, with one representative, Steve Toth, claiming that sex education is bad because it gets teenagers “hot and bothered.”

Beyond just being laughably obtuse—there is nothing less sexy in this world than watching your gym teacher explain how to use a condom—Toth’s comment illuminated what’s at the heart of all of these struggles over reproductive rights in Texas. Texas Republicans are deeply, obsessively worried that people, especially young people, aren’t abstaining from sex, and they really, really want them to. They can’t make them stop screwing, so they’re going to move to the next best option: make the consequences of sex as painful and hard to avoid as possible. That means cutting contraception funding, eliminating sex education, and, of course, making sure that, once young women are pregnant, there’s no safe way out of their dilemma. To satisfy their moralizing obsession with sex, everyone else will just have to suffer.