The unthinkable anti-abortion law that went into effect in Texas this week is just that—otherworldly. Unlike literally any other medically unfounded and illegal law that anti-choice legislators have introduced in the preceding decade, this law is uniquely caustic.
S.B.8 allows anyone who disapproves of abortion—a neighbor, distant relative, an abusive partner, or even a stranger—to report any perceived violation of the law, which could lead to a health center shutting down. Perhaps even more horrifyingly, it also allows any such person to act as a bounty hunter and sue doctors, health centers, and anyone who helps another person access abortion for $10,000 plus legal fees for each abortion identified.
As a physician who provides abortion care as part of my routine Ob/Gyn practice, I am outraged at our society’s collective silence in response to this blow. There should have been an immediate and massive outcry from business corporations, media organizations, universities, medical bodies, and anyone else with power, but to date, there is mostly an eerie collective silence in the media. No one is taking this as seriously as they should.
To be fair, we are a nation that is trauma-fatigued. Last year was a nightmare on many fronts and this year is proving to be just as challenging. In the midst of a global pandemic, continued systemic racial inequalities, catastrophic fires, and political divide come other equally pressing timely issues. Much of the Northeast is under water; there is a potential fire-breathing cloud above Lake Tahoe; and on the eve of the 20th anniversary of September 11, we collectively mourn lives lost in Afghanistan. We seemingly don’t have time to worry about abortion.
What’s more, to many outside observers, it might seem that our community of reproductive health providers and advocates has unintentionally “cried wolf” many times over the past several years. We have been so vocal so often about anti-abortion laws in recent years (several of which were blocked because of this support), that to the average media consumer, it may seem like this Texas law is just another such effort.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, U.S. states have enacted an astounding 1,313 abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973—566 of them since the beginning of 2011. Already, 2021 is tied with 1973 for the year with the second-most enacted restrictions ever. With previous laws, where appellate courts or even the Supreme Court ultimately deliver us a Hail Mary that reverses everything scary, media commotion dies down and everyone forgets what almost happened. This time however, there is no Hail Mary and we are screwed, but people don’t seem to get it yet.
When I mentioned this fact to my father—a staunch conservative whom I occasionally engage on this issue—he countered with what I imagine many Americans are thinking right now: that the women will just go to other states and be fine. Then I told him how my close friend is one of SIX abortion providers in the entire state of Oklahoma, the state that neighbors Texas to the north. Last month she quit her position there because of unsafe work conditions for the medical staff. To the right of Texas is Arkansas, where by her report, there are currently seven medical providers in the entire state, and Louisiana, where there was famously only one medical provider. Near that is Mississippi, where the Supreme Court will soon hear a case that threatens the constitutional right to abortion more broadly. There is literally no plan B for the South.
When you consider this in sum, it’s easy to feel numb from the crushing weight of this new reality. References to the fictional Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale are reemerging on Twitter, but where is the more substantial, purse strings-threatening dissent from people in power? Where are the boycotts? Do people really not understand that this potentially affects every reproductive-aged person in Texas and, soon, its neighboring states?
The first priority of doctors and other health-care providers is to ensure that patients can get the timely, compassionate care they need. It’s too late to provide this care directly in Texas, but thankfully a handful of organizations are still helping fund abortion care for Texans through financial travel assistance to nearby states. There are other ways beyond traditional policy avenues to fight back and now more than ever, we can’t let trauma fatigue prevent us from doing so.