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Current 25: Decades of anti-abortion sentiment boil over in attacks on women's health 


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Consider the culture wars resurrected in Texas, and our women on the front lines taking fire.

While the war over abortion can be traced back to the Christian evangelical mobilization of the 1980s, it was in the statehouse this year that women’s health care got stomped in the name of the unborn. Down to the last week, right-wing groups led a fiery charge aimed at decimating state-funded family-planning programs, the goal being to deliver a fatal blow to Planned Parenthood, one of the state’s top providers of basic women’s healthcare to poor and uninsured Texans.

In a compromise budget between the two chambers, lawmakers, under heightened pressure from anti-abortion groups like Texas Right to Life and others, agreed to cut $62 million from the roughly $99 million pot of state family planning money, and during the last full week of the regular session TRL was crystal clear on the goal of that effort. “With your help, in the next 72 hours the most evil, filthy organization in America, Planned Parenthood, might actually have to close some of its slaughterhouses,” TRL’s executive director Jim Graham told supporters. “Planned Parenthood and their dark cohorts are rabid, frothing to keep our tax dollars.”

With fanfare on the right, and muted outrage on the left, the governor held a ceremonious signing to ring in TRL’s sonogram bill achievement — a law that will now force women to undergo an invasive sonogram and listen to a description of the fetus before allowed an abortion.

It was groups like TRL that, under a “pro-life” banner, pushed policies to the bitter end this session that will not only put the health of many low-income women in jeopardy but also increase the number of unplanned pregnancies and increase abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, axing reproductive health care and contraceptive services for low-income women could raise the number of abortions in Texas by as much as 22 percent.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I don’t think these [anti-abortion] groups are evil or anything … but this legislative session revealed a new level of hatred on this issue,” said Nancy Diehl, a Planned Parenthood board member through the mid ’80s and ’90s. “It revealed a new mean-spiritedness and lack of respect for women, period, that I found shocking.”

Frustration over what Diehl called a growing “anti-woman sentiment” in the Lege boiled over the last week of the regular session. Outraged over a flyer circulating the capitol by an anti-tax group that she deemed “demeaning to women,” state Representative Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, delivered a lengthy, impassioned speech on the House floor, in which she said women continued to be “kicked down the road” during the 82nd session.

“During this legislative session, we’ve spent about 30 to 40 percent of our time kicking the reproductive organs of women down the road,” Thompson said. “I am really disgusted, and I’m really ashamed, that there’s nothing better for some organizations than kicking women.”

Jeffrey Hons, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Trust of South Texas, said events this session were merely a continuation of the long-simmering war over abortion. What began with conservative groups like Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition seeking to overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 eventually prompted Supreme Court rulings in the late ’80s and early ’90s that left states open to impose their own abortion restrictions, effectively pushing the debate to state capitols.

In 2003, Texas conservatives began trying to put the squeeze on abortion providers by cutting their family-planning money, setting off a court battle that forced Planned Parenthood to separate its family planning providers from its abortion services providers.

“I feel like it was in 2003 that, for the first time [anti-abortion groups] said, ‘You know something? We’ve been unsuccessful at stopping y’all over the issue of abortion, so we’re going to start punishing you for providing abortions. And we’re going to punish you through your family-planning dollars,’” Hons said. “That’s when you start to see family planning become the whipping boy to punish people for providing abortion care,” a tactic that became abundantly clear this session.

As the session wound down, TRL and others continued to insist that any state money diverted to either family-planning initiatives or the state’s widely successful Women’s Health Program were “funding streams for the abortion industry,” conflating their hatred for abortion with a disgust for public programs that actually reduce demand for the procedure.

The WHP provides thousands of low-income and uninsured women basic reproductive health-care services and contraception across the state and is thought to have saved Texas more than $40 million in Medicaid-related costs in 2008 alone. Despite this, many conservative lawmakers this session were willing to let the program expire rather than allow Planned Parenthood’s continued participation. (Planned Parenthood serves roughly 40 percent of the women enrolled in WHP). Lawmakers couldn’t pass the bill reauthorizing the program, but a last-minute budget rider may still keep it afloat.

Unless it is renewed, roughly 120,000 low-income women will lose access to contraceptive care and basic health screenings. If the WHP manages to survive, the fight to exclude Planned Parenthood will likely continue.

“I mean, this session has made me feel like we are moving toward the dark ages,” Hons said. “This is the roughest [session] I’ve seen.”

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