I first realized that a constitutional right to a safe, legal abortion did not guarantee access to one 25 years ago, in a board meeting of Planned Parenthood of West Texas. One of the action items on the agenda was a vote to begin providing abortion services at the largest of our five clinics in Midland, a conservative oil town of 100,000. I voiced concern.
My concern was not on religious grounds. As a recently ordained Unitarian Universalist minister in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I sometimes counseled women coping with unwanted pregnancies. I had learned to trust women to make complex moral decisions for themselves and their families. I was worried about public relations. I knew that our clinics provided sexuality education, contraception, treatment of STD's, cancer screenings and pre-natal care. I asked, "Wouldn't beginning to offer abortion services generate a great deal of negative publicity?"
In the discussion that ensued, I learned that having a constitutional right to a safe medical procedure did not mean a woman could actually get one. In the early 1990's, there were no doctors willing to perform abortions in Midland.
Doctors ran tests on pregnant women, but would offer no remedy if these tests revealed serious genetic abnormalities in the fetus. Can you imagine being pregnant, excited to become a mother and having your doctor inform you that fetal testing revealed that your child would be born, suffer and die within two years — and that there was nothing the doctor could do?
Women of all economic classes in West Texas had to drive over 300 miles if they needed an abortion for any reason. I remember women who drove six or seven hours for an abortion and then made the long drive back in the same day. The predicament of low-income women was even worse: The passage of the Hyde Amendment prohibited the use of Medicaid funds for abortion services, and many did not have access to the necessary transportation.
This persuaded me to vote in favor of our Planned Parenthood offering abortion services in Midland. The proposal passed, and the protests and negative publicity came. People opposed to abortion did not just protest with placards, one man chained himself to the link fence outside the clinic on a regular basis. The one weekend he did not do so was the day after he brought his daughter to the clinic for an abortion. But he was back the next weekend. He was literally on the fence.
Gov. Anne Richards and journalist Molly Ivins came to Midland to encourage and to inspire the work of Planned Parenthood of West Texas. Governor Richards died in 2006. Molly Ivins died in 2007. Planned Parenthood of West Texas closed all of its clinics in 2013.
This is not because the 8,000 to 10,000 women who annually visited its clinics stopped needing wellness exams, contraception or reproductive health care. In 2011, Texas cut grants to family planning clinics by two-thirds. Then in 2013, Texas stopped accepting federal Medicaid funds for even wellness exams and established a state-funded Women's Health Program that could legally withhold funds from any clinic affiliated with an abortion provider.
Furthermore, the Texas Legislature also passed a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Even if Planned Parenthood of West Texas had been funded to provide low cost reproductive care, we had no such doctor. Our doctor flew to Midland from another major city in Texas. This law further requires that abortion facilities must qualify as ambulatory surgical centers. Retrofitting the clinics was cost prohibitive.
Texas lawmakers said the law they passed, H.B. 2, was to protect the health of the woman. But the real effect of this law has been to limit access to safe and affordable abortion services. If H.B. 2 is upheld, it will leave only a handful of abortion clinics in a state so large that it takes an entire day to drive across it. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to this law tomorrow in the case of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt.
Along with 1,300 other clergy, I signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down this law. I remember my own naiveté, 25 years ago, believing that a constitutional right to a safe medical procedure also meant access to one. And from seeing those who opposed abortion on religious grounds until it was their own family member who needed one, I have come to believe that all women have a moral right to make their own moral decisions.
It is said that Midland is not the end of the world, but you can see it from there. Now women in the entire west half of Texas who seek an abortion have to make a five to 10 hour drive east — to Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston or Austin. Or they must make a seven hour drive west to Albuquerque, N.M. This reality is stressful for any woman. It is financially impossible for many young women and low-income women.
Such an undue burden did nothing to enhance the health or well-being of women 25 years ago. Nor will it today, in Texas or any other state in our nation.
The Rev. Clare L. Petersberger is minister of The Towson Unitarian Universalist Church outside Baltimore; her email is email@example.com.