Justice

Looking Back on a Year of Battles for Women's Reproductive Rights

Candice Russell admits that it's a "shitty thing to say," but the fight for women's reproductive rights in Texas is nothing new. 

A year ago today, on June 27, 2016, people like Russell — a pro-choice advocate and storyteller — were celebrating The Supreme Court's landmark decision in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which found Texas's unreasonable burdens on access to abortion care unconstitutional. 

These burdens required abortion clinics to meet hospital-like standards, often asking clinic owners to increase the size of their hallways or procedure rooms. It also asked doctors who perform abortions to prove that they have admitting privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, creating an unnecessary burden on the doctors and clinicians. As for the patients—women were required to wait for long periods (often 24 hours or more) before they have the procedure, which was an attempt at forcing women to rethink their decision, as reported by The New York Times

On that historic day, standing below the U.S. Supreme Court building's steps, scores of women and pro-choice activists cheered and sang in response to the justices' opinion that the provisions in Texas's House Bill 2 (HB2) placed "a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion," that is, the abortion of a fetus that cannot survive outside of its mother's uterus. 

But today, a year and one historic election later, the fight for women's reproductive rights seems far from over.

"It’s a little exhausting to think that that was supposed to be the end, and we were supposed to take a breath. Instead, we’re still out here, spinning our wheels and marching backwards," Russell said.

The march backwards resonates strongly with Russell, who has been advocating for better access to abortion since 2013, and especially after being forced to fly to California to access care. 

Russell, who lives in Dallas, needed an abortion in 2014 after her IUD failed. She was 12 to 13 weeks into her pregnancy, and even though HB2 hadn't fully been in effect in Dallas, the clinic closures around the state had overwhelmed major metropolitan areas like Dallas, Houston and Austin. As a result, Russell was looking at a three week wait for an abortion procedure—time she couldn't afford. So Russell flew out to California instead. 

"I was in California and back before they would have even seen me for my first appointment here in Texas," Russell said. 

But in order to avoid having a child when she wasn't ready, Russell had to take out a high-interest PayDay-like loan to cover the costs of the procedure, the flight, food, and hotel stay while she was there. All while taking time off a job in the service industry, which was definitely not paying her for sick leave. 

"That’s what ended up causing me mental anguish and depression," Russell said. It wasn't the abortion itself, but the combination of medical expenses, falling into a debt cycle with her PayDay loan, the travel she had to do to while pregnant and feeling sick, and the stigma of it all. It was worse than the stress of having the abortion itself, she said. 

"It would have been so much easier to have the child," she conceded, tongue in cheek. 

Now she welcomes everyone else to the fight. 

Trump's election has put reproductive rights advocates on the defensive.   

  • Senate Republicans have packed their health care reform legislation with restrictive measures, such as a provision that would prevent women from using government tax credits to procure an abortion through a private insurer, in order to appease anti-choice groups.
  • States have gotten more brazen in attempts to restrict abortion.
  • Vice President Mike Pence has been even more vocal about his stance as a pro-lifer.
  • Trump has extended cuts in foreign aid to organizations that provide abortion-related services.
  • And the Trump administration has appointed several anti-choice policy makers to its cabinet, including two women who have solid track records in opposing contraceptives and abortion all together.

"It's such a bittersweet thing because we had that 5 seconds of joy and then…we’re right back to where we started," Russell said. But now she is starting to hear from her coastal, liberal friends, who are finally feeling the panic she has felt for years as a Texan. 

"A lot of my friends didn’t think it was ever going to happen to them and now it’s happening to them and they’re scared," said Russell. 

But the battle hasn't always been this bleak in 2017.

Despite the constant attack on women's reproductive rights in the current political climate and under the Trump administration, there have been some significant accomplishments to look back on as well. 

1. Planned Parenthood has seen a surge in funding. 

After the election, Planned Parenthood received an influx of donations in support of providing information for safe abortions and access to family planning. This one is particularly satisfying for pro-choice advocates because most of the funding has been made in Mike Pence's name, a long-time critic of Planned Parenthood. 

2. New York took a major step to protect women seeking abortion services. 

New York filed a lawsuit against anti-abortion protestors, the The Huffington Post reported.

“You are not allowed to ... harass, intimidate and try and prevent people from exercising their constitutional rights,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said. 

3. Women in California can ask for birth control pills from their pharmacists. 

Some women in California have been waiting for a bill that would allow them to ask a pharmacist for birth control pills instead of seeing a doctor to become law since 2013. In the past year, it finally passed. Now women who want oral contraceptives quick and easy can fill out a questionnaire with their pharmacist to access an (almost) over-the-counter pill.