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Ms. Tuma is a Texas-based journalist who covers reproductive rights.
For half a year, Roe v. Wade — the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guarantees abortion rights for all Americans — has been effectively moot in the second largest state in the country, home to about 10 percent of the nation’s reproductive-age women.
On Sept. 1, the Supreme Court allowed Texas Senate Bill 8 to go into effect — the most restrictive abortion law to do so in the United States since Roe. There’s a good chance that Texans will not see their reproductive rights restored any time soon — because Roe itself could be overturned or gutted before the fate of S.B. 8 is resolved in the courts.
Over decades, in one situation after another, Texas has been the epicenter of America’s abortion rights battle. What happens in Texas rarely stays there.
I’ve lived in Texas my entire life. I have reported on reproductive rights for 10 years, and what is happening in the state still feels surreal. An untold number of Texans have suffered under S.B. 8, which bans abortion once embryonic cardiac activity is detected, typically around the sixth week of pregnancy, with no exception for rape or incest. S.B. 8 disproportionately affects vulnerable and marginalized Texans, who are most likely to continue pregnancies against their will, rather than travel to overburdened clinics in neighboring states — a worrisome prospect given the state’s already high maternal mortality rate.
Even before S.B. 8 took effect, reproductive rights advocates in Texas felt that most of the country wasn’t paying attention. This may be because many Americans have long regarded Texas politics as nothing but the right-wing fringe — easily dismissed and not to be taken seriously.
From a state board of education that has featured creationists to gaffe-prone governors to threats that the state would secede under a Democratic president, Texas is often treated as a punchline. But the state’s policies — on education, gun control, energy, public health and economic regulation — have influenced the national agenda for years, especially in other red states. Texas has been described in the press recently as a “leader” in charting the potential course of the Republican Party nationally.
Abortion is no exception. State lawmakers’ doomed attempts to punish abortion with the death penalty may be ridiculed, but Texas Republicans have succeeded in passing a slew of anti-abortion laws that have kept people from accessing care.
This is not a reflection of what many Texans want, however: According to an October 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 46 percent of voters disapproved of how state leaders have handled abortion policy. And a February 2022 poll from the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project found that 53 percent of voters in the state either strongly or somewhat oppose automatically banning abortion in the state if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.
Texas’ history as a vanguard for abortion rights battles goes back to the Roe v. Wade case itself. In 1970, a pair of young lawyers filed suit against the Dallas district attorney, Henry Wade, on behalf of Norma McCorvey, known under the pseudonym Jane Roe, who was barred from obtaining an abortion by Texas law. Of course, that case made it to the Supreme Court, and a right to abortion became the law of the land.
Several years later, Rosie Jimenez, from McAllen, Texas, was unable to afford a legal abortion and was forced to resort to an unsafe procedure that resulted in a deadly infection. Jimenez was the first known woman in the United States to die as a result of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which bars federal Medicaid funds from covering most abortions — but she was almost certainly not the last.
Through the 1970s and ’80s, Texas Democrats controlled both houses of the State Legislature and most statewide offices. In the early ’90s, the state even had explicitly pro-choice leadership under a Democratic governor, Ann Richards (who, as it happens, was the mother of Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood).
But since then, the state’s leaders have moved steadily to the right. Texas Republicans cemented their power after the 2010 Tea Party-led “red wave” that swept statehouses across the United States, and accelerated the party’s aggressive anti-abortion mission. In 2012, Gov. Rick Perry proclaimed he would try to “make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past.”
His party has spent the ensuing years working hard to make that vision a reality. Anti-choice conservatives in Texas have passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, including a 24-hour waiting period requirement, restrictions on judicial bypass for minors seeking abortions, a ban on abortions after the 20th week of a pregnancy, a ban on public and private insurance coverage of abortions, a ban on abortions provided via telemedicine, restrictions on access to medication abortions, and a law banning the most common type of second-trimester abortion. The Texas G.O.P. has simultaneously decimated the state’s family planning network and has repeatedly attacked Planned Parenthood — giving other states a blueprint for how to undermine reproductive health.
So it’s no surprise that at least 11 states have attempted to copy S.B. 8, including in many cases the law’s unusual enforcement mechanism, which has made it difficult to challenge it in the courts. Last week, the Idaho State Senate passed one such bill.
When I think back on the past decade of abortion rights battles in Texas, one moment in particular stands out. It was 2013, and Wendy Davis, then a state senator, captured international attention by launching an 11-hour filibuster to protest a sweeping anti-abortion law. I will never forget feeling the granite of the Texas Capitol building reverberate as thousands of pro-choice Texans rallied inside and outside the Senate chamber.
Ms. Davis’s filibuster stopped the law from passing that day, but a few weeks later, after many of the TV cameras had left, Republicans rubber-stamped the law, which by then was known as H.B. 2. Before the Supreme Court struck down much of the law in 2016, H.B. 2 shuttered about half of the abortion clinics in Texas, doing irreparable damage to the state’s reproductive health network.
Abortion rights advocates initially believed that the commotion over H.B. 2 might have galvanized lasting investment in reproductive rights in Texas — but the support inevitably waned. Today, many of those same advocates feel a sense of déjà vu with S.B. 8, as the initial national fascination with the law has faded. Frustrated and exhausted, the people working to secure access to abortion in Texas feel that years of sounding the alarm about the trajectory of reproductive rights in their state — and the nation — went largely ignored, even by some of their ostensible national allies.
In the meantime, Texans continue to suffer. Some people are terminating their pregnancies through unsafe means. Abortion providers are anxious about the future of their clinics and the fact that they have to turn away patients in need. Abortion funds are struggling to meet demand. And little relief has come from the federal government.
The tendency to dismiss Texas politics has had a high cost. And with the future of Roe v. Wade on the line, the stakes of looking away are growing by the day.
Mary Tuma is a Texas-based journalist who covers reproductive rights. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, The Texas Observer, The Austin Chronicle and Rewire News Group.
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