Lyda Ness-Garcia speaking at a rally in El Paso - courtesy Heriberto Ibarra Photography
A spirited pair of eyes greeted me warmly from across her desk as we prepared to speak about the one thing that united us regardless of not ever knowing each other before this moment.
“This is absolutely a war on women.”
Lyda Ness-Garcia is not exaggerating. July 2013 was a turbulent month for her and the women of Texas as events unfolded in the Texas legislature. Rick Perry and the Republican Party have been pushing for House Bill 2 (HB2), the sweeping and controversial abortion-regulations measure, to be passed. Unfortunately it was passed but not before Wendy Davis filibustered for 13 hours and 10,000 Texan women rose up to protest and protect their reproductive rights. “It started with Texas and it ends with Texas,” she began as she told me about the history of the struggle with reproductive rights in the United States.
I recently relocated to Texas to train to become a midwife. Coming from New York, I’ve been aware of reproductive health justice for a couple of years now. Many people only think abortion and contraception when reproductive justice is mentioned. I was the same way until I became responsible for my own health. I got my first gynecological exam in college. Since then, I’ve had various providers give me annual exams. I have learned about birth control and have had fairly easy access to it. The difficulty of gaining access to adequate health care became real to me when I had to start applying for public assistance after graduating from college. I suddenly had to care if my government insurance was going to cover not just contraception but all the services I need. I had to think critically about who to go to with limited choices available to me and why politics had anything to do with my reproductive health.
The most famous court case when speaking on reproductive rights is Roe V. Wade, the 1973 landmark case on the issue of abortion. In 1821, Connecticut passed the first state statute criminalizing abortion. Every state had abortion legislation by 1900. This legislation did not stop women from doing what they needed to do for themselves; the problem is and has been the ability to have a safe non-life threatening way of going about it. Under Roe V. Wade, whose ruling took place in Texas, the Supreme Court decided that abortion was a fundamental right under the Constitution. It was the case that divided the country into pro-life and pro-choice camps, with pro-lifers tending to be Republicans and pro-choice being Democrats.
The issue has expanded further than abortion, with family planning and contraception access becoming an integral part of reproductive choices for women. These services have been available in women’s health clinics that usually are free to low-cost, vital for women. who would not be able to otherwise afford gynecological care, family planning counseling, mammograms and other services. The sad part is that while Roe V. Wade allowed safe abortions to exist, pro-life conservatives and the pro-life organization ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s sister organization AUL, Americans United for Life, are dedicated to writing legislation that would make access to abortions harder for women. The HB 2 bill came from AUL.
While Texas is in the spotlight, it is but a microcosm of a huge wave of state legislation that has been designed to limit choices and access to healthcare for women. Moreover, these so-called pro-lifers are only concerned with life before it is born; the Republican Party has shown no interest in providing social services, access to health care, prenatal care, and comprehensive education. The bill passed would close all but 5 women’s health clinics in the entire state, leaving thousands of women without accessible healthcare – annual exams, pap smears, mammograms, family planning, and STD testing . It would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, require all abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, ban tele-medical abortions, and require all abortion clinics to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, which would reduce numbers of sites.
The potential bad news doesn’t stop at state borders. Texas has been a battleground state politically because of the influence it has on other state legislation. Texas is the barometer for the way many things in the country will go. “So goes Texas, so goes the nation.”
Lyda began by telling me her own personal story around the effects of having the ability to choose. She is an attorney in family law specializing in divorces, custody, child support, enforcement and Child Protective Services cases. She is also a mother of three beautiful children and the cofounder of Stand With El Paso Women with Andra Ury Litton. Her experiences with her reproductive health have helped her understand how important the power of choice is. When she gave birth, she experienced two Cesarean sections because, like many women in this country, she trusted the judgment and knowledge of the obstetrician. For her third birth, she had educated herself and was influenced by watching The Business of Being Born to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) home birth. She was able to make a choice for herself that empowered her. It was for her “the most feminist empowering moment” to give birth at home. Though the issue is masked with the ever delicate subject of abortion, the real problem at hand is that enforcing all the restrictive guidelines in HB2 would mean millions of Texan women, particularly impoverished and marginalized women, would lose access to reproductive health services that they would not have otherwise.
“It has to do with a woman’s right to all her choices,” Lyda went on, as she spoke about the rally that led to the creation of the grassroots political action committee, Stand with El Paso Women, supporting women’s rights through political action and supporting pro-women candidates. In helping to channel the energy of the rally through thought-provoking and inspiring words, the event included an invocation from a pastor, speeches from professors and local politicians, and powerful testimonials by women present that made it clear how horrific it would be to have the few clinics that exist in El Paso disappear. “An 81 year old woman gave a testimonial,” recounted Lyda, “and said, this was the clinic that discovered my breast cancer.”
It is stories like this that the Texan government seems to be ignoring. Prior to the HB2 bill being passed, Rick Perry was responsible for a $73 billion cut in funding for health services, mental health services, Medicaid and other social services. These cuts closed Planned Parenthood in El Paso back in 2011. With her work as a child abuse and family lawyer, Lyda sees the effects of the Texan government not supporting its constituents’ needs. “The GOP needs to put its money where its mouth is,” Lyda scoffed as we discussed how “concerned” they seem to be about the unborn but have no respect for what happens after children come into the world. Rick Perry promotes policies that erode access to healthcare for women. He slashed funding for family planning by 66%, cutting access to healthcare for nearly 300,000 women. He has worked with allies in Texas legislature to end successful sex education programming, so that 94 percent of school districts have abstinence-only curriculums. This contributes to Texas having the 4th highest teen pregnancy rate in the United States, as well as having 1.4 million uninsured children. Republicans are not truly pro-life at all.
What is happening in the Texas government and other states attempting to pass similar bills is evidence that the United States is failing to meet its human rights obligation to provide equal access to reproductive healthcare. This issue has been brought to the United Nations Human Rights Council about the dramatic disparities in access to safe abortions, contraception, pregnancy care, STD screening and more. Lyda made it clear that the measures taken in July would most negatively impact impoverished and marginalized women. The closest clinic, if the clinics in El Paso close, is in San Antonio – eight to 10 hours driving. Most women would be unable to make this journey and probably not seek health services at all.
“There are a lot of pissed off women in Texas,” Lyda declared as she shared how women around the state came out in droves to the capitol to protest the passing of HB2. About 10,000 women showed up during the special second session Rick Perry called after the Texas legislature was unable to shut down Wendy Davis’ filibuster and were unsuccessful in forcing the vote that night. They ended up voting on the bill in a private room amid the furious women raising their voices. “I hope this is a wakeup call,” she continued as the discussion turned to what was next for Texan women. The next step would be the filing of a lawsuit against the state of Texas, with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Texans Hospital Association and other organizations fighting to prevent the bill’s restrictions from becoming a complete reality come October 2014.
“It’s not going away,” she said after some silence. The solution is to get pro-women legislators in office. There is a general sense of political apathy in El Paso; with the climate the way it is in Texas and the United States, it is of the utmost importance to make the voice of the masses heard. Next year will be a local election year and also when the presidential candidates for the United States will start to campaign for 2016. Unfortunately, Rick Perry is planning to run for President so more than ever, a battleground state like Texas needs to go from red to blue - from Republican to Democrat.
The time is now to shake women and families out of political apathy. Organizing groups like Stand with El Paso Women are an effective strategy in channeling the energy of women into action. Giving women the floor to share their journeys with their reproductive health creates common ground among individuals who would otherwise see each other as different. It is important, not just in Texas but in all American communities, to organize on a local level. Often the focus is on primary elections but fighting to get the right people in assembly, city council and legislative position is vital. Another strategy would use media to educate. The Business of Being Born, a 2007 film, for example, has had a profound effect on Lyda and many women in the United States. Producing documentaries, short films and various images to reach the sleeping giant of unengaged voters is a powerful tool for change.
We must meet people where they are. Grassroots efforts, part of which include door-knocking and having face-to-face conversations with members of the community, drive the issues home. It is one of the strategies that got President Barack Obama elected. He not only received support on a corporate level but also from ordinary people donating and rallying in their communities. We have been led into thinking that our voice and our efforts do not matter; one only has to look back 100 years into our history to see what happens when people mobilize to change the political climate. Women have rallied to gain the right to vote. African Americans went on a vigorous campaign for their civil rights and to empower the people with the knowledge that they are valuable. It took work but we have a lot to be thankful for because marginalized people were convinced they could make a change. We must mobilize and do the same.
As for me, a New Yorker in Texas, my job has become to talk passionately with as many people as I can. Writing and sharing information about unfolding events contributes to the rising voice of unrest in this state and in the world. If this is a war on women, women will rise as the warriors they are and claim what is theirs – the right to choose and determine their lives.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.