When the Supreme Court hears arguments this week in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt — the Center for Reproductive Rights’ challenge to the unprecedented barriers Texas created in 2013 to stop women from accessing safe and legal abortion — the first question justices should ask is this:
If the state bars you from exercising a constitutional right, do you really have that right at all?
That’s what’s at stake in Hellerstedt, which challenges the Texas legislature’s H.B. 2, a law imposing medically unnecessary requirements on health centers, regulating everything from the width of hallways to the outfitting of janitors’ closets — specifications that many health centers find impossible to fulfill and that do nothing to improve the quality of health care for women. Medical experts oppose this law because it hurts women by shutting down clinics and blocking access to safe, legal abortion — our right guaranteed by the court in Roe v. Wade.
If the law stands, at most, only 10 health centers will be left in Texas that can legally provide safe abortion for 5.4 million women of reproductive age, down from about 40 centers just a few years ago. Planned Parenthood is a health-care provider whose foremost concern is the health and safety of our patients, and their ability to obtain needed care — this law is contrary to health and safety.
Hellerstedt is the most significant abortion case before the Supreme Court in more than two decades. And the issue before the justices is whether these restrictions constitute an undue burden on women seeking an abortion. Women in Texas, and throughout the country, know they do. Yet we risk the court rolling back 43 years of precedent, protecting women’s rights under Roe, and pushing safe, legal abortion out of reach for millions. With 3 out of 10 American women having an abortion at some point in their lives, according to a 2011 study, this lack of access would have colossal consequences.
Many Texas women already struggle to access safe, legal abortion. Researchers at the Texas Policy Evaluation Project find that some women must wait up to 20 days to get a legal abortion in Texas. These same researchers estimate that at least 100,000 Texas women have tried to end a pregnancy on their own, without medical assistance. And because of the lack of access in women have in their own state, we know women are traveling across state lines — into New Mexico or Louisiana — to seek care.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit allowed a similar law to go into effect in Louisiana. Overnight, abortion providers in that state had to shut their doors. If that ruling is allowed to stand, it’s likely that when the dust settles, there will be only one health center providing safe and legal abortion in Louisiana. Where, then, will women of reproductive age in Louisiana and Texas turn? Though another law of this kind has, for now, been blocked in Alabama, we are at risk of millions of women in an entire region of the country finding themselves unable to have a safe medical procedure that is their right.
Planned Parenthood staff witnessed firsthand what happened when Texas’s law was implemented in October, before being temporarily enjoined by the high court. Our health centers were inundated with calls from frightened patients, and many lined up outside our doors, hoping they could still access the care they needed at the few health centers that remained open.
One woman had traveled to Houston from another state the day the order came down from the court. She’d left her children at home with a friend the night before so that she could get the ultrasound required by the state and wait the mandatory 24 hours before being treated. When she woke up the next day, her doctor could no longer perform the procedure because of the order. She was frantic and sobbing when she came to our health center. Our clinicians tried to ensure she got the care she needed, but in the end, she said she needed to go back to her children. We don’t know what happened to her.
If the provisions in H.B. 2 are allowed to stand, researchers estimate that the number of women seeking abortions at the remaining Texas health centers would reach beyond existing capacity. Women would experience delays that would nearly double the percentage of abortions taking place in the second trimester. Already, more than half of Texas women report at least one barrier to accessing reproductive health care, and many who need an abortion live hundreds of miles from the nearest health center.
To have a right means you can exercise it, regardless of your Zip code, your income or your race and without interference from politicians in your state. H.B. 2 takes that right away.
It’s part of a pattern. Since 2011, politicians have passed 288 restrictions on safe, legal abortion. And contrary to the claim by Texas state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R) that Texas’s law is about “what is best for the health of the woman,” the true intention of politicians behind laws like H.B. 2 is to ban abortion completely. This was laid bare when the same state politician stated last year, “I am so proud that Texas always takes the lead in trying to turn back what started with Roe v. Wade.”
An admission that Texas’s law isn’t about safe medical care; it’s about keeping women from it.
If the court fails to strike down the law, states across the country will follow Texas’s grim example. At Planned Parenthood, we are doing everything we can to continue providing basic health care, including abortion, no matter what. No mother in the world wants her daughter to have fewer rights than she did, so we’re fighting to ensure that every girl growing today up will be able to control her body and her future.