Over the past several months, RH Reality Check Senior Political Reporter Andrea Grimes traveled to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to meet some of the Texans who are most affected by HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion law that is expected to shutter all but six abortion clinics in the state. Today, the Valley has no legal abortion providers, in an area where some of the most marginalized Texans do not have the means to travel hundreds of miles round-trip to obtain legal abortions. Watch Grimes’ video dispatch below.
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Slide: We Deserve Better: Reproductive Health Care in Crisis in the Rio Grande Valley
Andrea Grimes (narrator): Welcome to the Rio Grande Valley, a four-county region in South Texas, home to about 1.3 million people who live sandwiched between the US-Mexican border and a series of interior border control checkpoints where agents monitor travellers making their way into central Texas.
In the Valley, access to safe, legal abortion care disappeared in November 2013, after conservative lawmakers passed HB 2, the anti-abortion bill famously filibustered by Wendy Davis.
Now, at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic here in downtown McAllen—the poorest city in the United States—a skeleton crew keeps this former abortion clinic open, seeing patients before they travel hundreds of miles roundtrip for safe, legal abortions.
AG: “So, how many patients are you guys going to see today?”
Voice of Lucy, clinic worker at Whole Woman’s Health: “On the schedule we have like six or seven pre-ops. One’s already come in, but she was an IUP, she was too early. And then we just have our second pre-op right now. So we just have follow-ups. Some patients come in for information, but you know, I’ll have, I’ll ask if they want to stay. So we can get a big chunk out of the way. And it does help a lot, because you know, we get their paperwork out of the way, we do everything that they need prior to their abortion. And then we’ll scan and fax everything to the other clinic, so they know by the time they get there, how much they’re going to pay.”
Whole Woman’s also helps patients with gas cards or bus tickets to assist them in making the eight-hour roundtrip journey to San Antonio, or the 10 hour roundtrip journey to Austin. I talked with Andrea Ferrigno, the corporate vice president at Whole Woman’s Health, about the challenges that Valley patients face accessing legal abortion care—and that’s only if the have the documents to get them past the border patrol agents who stand between many Valley residents and legal abortion.
Andrea Ferrigno, corporate vice president at Whole Woman’s Health: “So, we’re talking about transportation. We’re talking about child care. We’re talking about possibly lodging if you can’t make the trip back on the same day. We’re talking about gas money, bus tickets, the cost of the procedure. That type of logistical planning is some of the things that we are offering right now. and those are the steps that they have to go through. And we’re talking about people that are able to make that plan and are able to have the support that that could happen. It’s not the case for the majority of people.”
AG: This is all happening because of HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had to call two special legislative sessions to pass. It does four things:
It bans abortion after 20 weeks, requires doctors to prescribe medication abortion in higher, less effective doses according to 13-year-old FDA regulations, it requires abortion facilities to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, and it mandates that abortion providing doctors obtain admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of where they perform the procedure.
It’s the admitting privileges requirement that ended legal abortion in the Rio Grande Valley in November 2013, when the Valley’s abortion-providing Valley doctors, who have been providing safe abortion care for decades, were forced to stop providing care because they hadn’t yet, and have not yet, been able to secure admitting privileges at local hospitals in this deeply socially conservative area.
The heavily Hispanic Valley is a different shade of blue in this red state; it is a warm, welcoming and complicated place affected by systemic poverty and an increasingly militarized border with Mexico. But the Valley’s people speak of it with a fierce love and loyalty.
Nancy Cárdenas, reproductive justice activist: “My name is Nancy Cárdenas. I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley. I lived in Mexico for about four years before coming to the Valley. My parents chose to come to the states because they wanted a better life for me and my little brother, and I’ve been raised in the Valley ever since. I recently came to Austin for U.T. and I just graduated with a double major in government and international studies. I think the Valley’s just, it’s home. It’s the where we grew up, it’s the home we were raised in, it’s the home our parents fought so hard to, you know, cross over to. It’s the home where our parents invested all their hopes and dreams into our future and left behind a life in Mexico that, you know, they look back on from time to time.”
Andrea Ferrigno, corporate vice president at Whole Woman’s Health: “It’s not like any other border. It’s not like any other frontier. It’s very original, and like I said, it’s very rich. I love it. I love how people talk. I love the music. I love the food. It’s very much of that area, right. I find it so, so charming.”
AG: Many thousands of Valley residents live in colonias, which are often unincorporated areas and neighborhoods with little or no access to sewer systems, electricity and waste disposal. They struggle to make ends meet; there is little public transportation, and legislative budget cuts have decimated the safety net that once provided affordable, and sometimes free, cancer screenings and contraception for women in the Valley. Paula Saldaña, a health care educator in Brownsville, has seen the effects of these budget cuts first hand.
Voice of Paula Saldaña, health care educator in Brownsville: “My sister’s a good example. She, I’m going ot use her as an example and one of our patients that I just saw last night. She has an eleven year old, and then she came up pregnant with her, and she was fine. And she was a Planned Parenthood patient. She would get her birth control there, her pap smears. But then the cuts came. And she had to pay and she was like ‘Okay, so it’s my light bill or it’s my birth control.’ And inbetween her deciding? She got another one.”
AG: Recently, an independent coalition of reproductive health care providers, including some Planned Parenthood clinics, applied for a federal title ten grant to reopen some clinics in the Valley. Thanks to that grant, this 50-year-old Planned Parenthood clinic in Mission, Texas has reopened its doors. But there is still a long, long way to go.
Patricio Gonzalez, CEO at Planned Parenthood of Hidalgo County: “We are, we were affected the most of all the areas in the state, and primarily our affiliate in Planned Parenthood. Because we were doing a lot of preventive work. A lot of prevention, wellness exams, pap smears, cancer screenings, birth control. We were helping many, many women. over 23,000 women, back in 2011. And then just, the snap of a finger, they took away almost all that funding for the women.”
AG: For many in the Valley, it feels as though their lives are not valued by state lawmakers who willfully turn a blind eye to the damage bad policies are doing to some of the most marginalized Texans.
Nancy Cárdenas, reproductive justice activist: “I think we saw that especially during the special sessions, when women from the Valley couldn’t physically be there. I mean we, most of the people there, had the luxury of living fifteen minutes away, even two hours away. And it’s not like there wasn’t some kind of concern coming from Valley residents about this law, because there was. There was protests, there were events there that were being held at the same time as the special sessions. But because legislators didn’t physically see a presence there, that was just kind of enough for them to say, this isn’t a big deal, this isn’t really going to happen. I think it’s just so much disconnect. And I think Valley residents don’t deserve that. I think we deserve more respect. And I think it should be acknowledged that this is an epidemic, and this is a crisis in the Valley. Women are being resorted to dangerous conditions and to kind of dangerous alternative to relieve their pregnancies, and I just think they should open their eyes and realize that this is a bigger issue than they think it is.”
AG: If they cannot travel hundreds of miles for a legal abortion, Valley residents may cross into Mexico, if they can, to obtain abortion pills, or try to find them at local flea markets. In September, all four tenets of HB 2 will go into effect, leaving Texas with just six abortion providers in the entire state, located in five major cities along the state’s main highway corridors. What’s happening in the Valley is about to be happening in smaller metropolitan areas across Texas.
Andrea Ferrigno, corporate vice president at Whole Woman’s Health: “So we are forcing women and their families to take desperate measures. And the consequences of those actions are going to be things they’re going ot have to deal with in emergency rooms in the Valley. In order for us to regain safe access, it’s going to take a while. And I think there will be casualties, unfortunately. And the saddest thing is that it has to get to that point for people in government to notice and stop trying to practice medicine. It’s definitely not, HB 2 is not addressing any kind of public health crisis, but what is coming, unfortunately, is going to be a huge crisis in the Valley.”
AG: In January 2014, Whole Woman’s McAllen would have celebrated its tenth anniversary providing compassionate, legal abortion care to people in the Valley. Now, they struggle to stay open as their former clients are forced to look elsewhere for health care.
Andrea Ferrigno, corporate vice president at Whole Woman’s Health: [dabbing eyes after crying] This is how it affects me. This is your question! This is how it affects me. It’s Just sad. It’s very sad. There is such great potential in the Valley. People deserve so much better. Women deserve so much better. People in the Valley are fighters. They face obstacles consistently. In so many levels. And it doesn’t keep them down. People work really hard. People fight for what’s right. And I think we’ve enjoyed so much being part of that fight. And to be at this point, particularly today, right, on our tenth anniversary of offering great services and having great relationships in the community, that we’re not able to do, and offer the services we’re so good at, and that women deserve. You know, places where you can come as you are and we can talk about what really matters most to you. And be able to leave our clinic and go back out in the world and be the person you want to be. And feeling that you don’t have to fear judgment because you’re great as you are. Not being able to do that, in the Valley, is heartbreaking right now.”
Slide: For more coverage on Texas’ reproductive health care crisis, visit RHRealityCheck.org.