By Maria Esquinca
Politicians, activists and students rallied in front of the El Paso County Courthouse to pledge their support for safe and accessible reproductive healthcare in the state of Texas on Friday, Feb. 15.
The rally formed part of a statewide tour supported by local, state and national organizations and clinics, such as Whole Woman’s Health, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and West Fund, among others.
The aim of the rally was to pledge support for abortion access prior to the Supreme Court decision of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The case was brought on by the Center for Reproductive Rights after it filed a lawsuit on April 2, 2014, challenging House Bill 2, a Texas law, because it created an undue burden for people trying to get an abortion.
“This is a really important time in history and it has the potential to dictate what reproductive healthcare is going to look like across the country,” said Student Organizer Adriano Kristian Perez, at the rally.
HB 2 was enacted into law on July 13, despite a 13-hour filibuster by former Sen.Wendy Davis, D-Ft.Worth. It imposed some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country.
“I saw hundreds and hundreds of men and women…flooding the capitol to make their voices heard at the capitol steps; in the committee hearing rooms and during the senate debate, up in the gallery, down in the hallways, in the entryways, everywhere,” said Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, at the rally. “I think that is the most people that the capitol of Texas has ever seen. And that’s something that we should be proud of.”
Prior to HB 2 there were over 40 abortion clinics open in Texas, as of October of 2015 there were 19. The reason so many clinics shut down is because most clinics could not meet two of the HB 2 requirements: that clinics be converted into ambulatory surgical centers, which requires specific structural changes, and that abortion providers obtain hospital admitting privileges at local hospitals no farther than 30 miles away from the clinic.
Supporters of HB 2 argue that the law is intended to make abortions safer. However, opponents of the law argue that conservative legislators used safety as a guise to shut down abortion clinics.
“It’s a safe procedure, there are rarely any instances that it would go to the Emergency Room, and if they do they have ER doctors to take care of that,” said Gerri Laster, administrator of Reproductive Services, an abortion clinic in El Paso that opened in 1977 and closed down temporarily after HB 2 was passed. “The last time we admitted a patient to the hospital because of a problem was 23 years ago.”
On June 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped enforcement of the law while the CRR prepared a request for the Supreme Court to review the case. The ASC requirement was blocked statewide and the hospital admitting privileges requirement remains blocked in clinics in McAllen and El Paso. The injunction will remain until the Supreme Court hearing on March 2.
“A ruling in our favor will limit politicians’ ability to enact laws based on fake science,” said Stephanie Shea, marketing manager for Whole Women’s Health, at the rally. “Laws like HB 2 and the many restrictions that come before it, such as waiting periods and forced ultrasounds, disproportionally impact women of color and uninsured working mothers.”
Laster estimates that 18,000 clients a year visited Reproductive Services before it shut down and reopened. Some patients came from as far as Chihuahua, Mexico, where abortion is only legal up to 12 weeks in the capitol city of Mexico.
The 1992 Supreme Court decision of Planned Parenthood v. Casey affirmed that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion that is protected under the 14th amendment and that states cannot pass laws that create an undue burden for people attempting to exercise their right.
The Supreme Court will decide in March whether the “undue burden” standard of Planned Parenthood v. Casey is being violated under HB 2 and whether the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals erred in allowing Texas to enforce laws that would cause a significant reduction in the availability of abortion services.
“HB 2 makes it hard for them to get an abortion,”said Pamela Richter, medical director of Reproductive Services. She said that people seeking abortions “have to go outside El Paso. They have to go to Las Cruces or New Mexico. So it encumbers them with more expenses and having to travel, take time off,”
The death of former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, a conservative judge, has some people speculating whether this will result in a favorable decision towards abortion rights supporters.
The Chuco for Choice rally was the final stop of the Fight Back Texas Truth Tour. Attendees pledged to stand in solidarity for reproductive justice.