State troopers spent an hour and a half confiscating tampons and sanitary pads from Texans hoping to enter the public gallery to watch Friday's final debate on an omnibus anti-abortion bill that would shut down all but five abortion clinics in Texas.
UPDATE, July 12 11:00 p.m.: Tom Hargis, a communications representative from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told Rewire by email: “At this time I cannot speak to the legality of DPS officials confiscating women’s tampons. What is clear, however, is that with the impending passage of this legislation, we are witnessing an abuse of power aimed at half of the Texas population. Women—republicans, democrats, greens, and libertarians—will not forget when they go to the voting booth. We already know that a majority of Texans don’t want politicians interfering with a woman’s profoundly personal medical decisions. Texas politicians are finding that out first-hand at the Capitol tonight.”
UPDATE, July 12, 8:35 p.m.:As the Texas Tribune notes, many reproductive rights supporters are questioning aspects of the Texas DPS’s statement. Furthermore, the Tribune asked DPS officers around the capitol about the jars of feces and urine claim: “multiple officers throughout the Capitol said they had not heard of any jars being found until a reporter mentioned it. Several officers also said they had not heard anything on the DPS radio system about jars of any excrement.”
UPDATE, July 12, 6:10 p.m.: The Texas Department of Public Safety has released a brief statement confirming that “feminine hygiene products” were among the items that were “required to be discarded” before individuals could enter the Texas Capitol for a time Friday. The department says it also collected jars “suspected to contain” feces, urine, and paint. The department did not state why it stopped collecting items.
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State troopers spent an hour and a half Friday confiscating tampons and sanitary pads, among other items, from Texans hoping to enter the public gallery to watch the final debate over HB 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill that would shut down all but five abortion clinics in the state. The move meant that menstruating people would either have to refrain from entering the gallery, or do so without sanitary products.
Concealed handguns, however, were as welcome as ever—in fact, there’s a line in the Texas Capitol for anyone who wants to bypass security with a weapon.
Volunteers in orange shirts wound through the capitol rotunda, filling reusable shopping bags with enough drug store essentials to stock a small quick-stop, asking folks to surrender their most necessary items before they got to the gallery doors to speed up the seating process.
With just under 500 people packing the senate gallery to maximum capacity, word finally came from the office of state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) that state troopers had stopped taking up the sanitary items, meaning that menstruating Texans could continue to comfortably participate in democracy at their own state capitol.
Texas' penal code explicitly exempts pregnant individuals from being punished for harming their own fetuses. But that hasn't stopped prosecutors from charging them with child endangerment for using drugs while pregnant.
The West Texas media loves to show her mugshot—the overhead fluorescent lighting, the height hatch marks on the cinderblock wall behind her disheveled hair, all filtered through the grainy colors and low-resolution pixels of the jailhouse camera. Together, these elements scream the words that news anchors and police beat reporters don’t even need to use: bad mommy.
Their faces make the newspaper or the 9 p.m. cable broadcast, set alongside a damning headline. Something with a nice jumble of fear-inducing keywords: “pregnant,” “mother,” “meth,” “cocaine,” “unborn,” or “baby.”
Then, after their trial-by-media, they mostly disappear. Perhaps viewers and readers imagine them in jail, serving hard time for their moral failures as women and mothers living with substance addiction.
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The thing is, what they’ve done isn’t actually illegal in Texas.
Protected Under the Law?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states have “fetal homicide” laws on the books that increase penalties for crimes committed against pregnant people and the embryo or fetus inside them. Texas’ law, signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2003, is one of the broadest in the country. It defines an individual as “a human being who is alive, including an unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth,” meaning that, for example, a drunk driver who kills a pregnant person can be charged with a crime against two separate people.
But the Texas law also makes an important exception: A pregnant person cannot be charged with injury to their own fetus, and neither can a doctor performing legal abortion care with “requisite consent.” This exception, nestled into the 2003 modification of the Texas Penal Code, ensures that a crime “does not apply to conduct charged as having been committed against an individual who is an unborn child” if said conduct is “committed by the mother of the unborn child.”
This provision should shield pregnant people from accusations of child endangerment toward their own embryos or fetuses. In fact, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott effectively confirmed in a 2005 ruling that the law does provide this shield; the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also issued an opinion on the matter in 2006, overturning the conviction of two Texas women who had been sentenced to jail for taking drugs during their pregnancies.
But that hasn’t stopped prosecutors in the vast, largely rural swath of the state west of Interstate Highway 35 from charging women with reckless child endangerment for ingesting controlled substances while pregnant. And inevitably, these allegations are accompanied by the over-saturated mugshots and scandalized copy that have become the hallmark of local media reports.
Attorney Farah Diaz-Tello, an Austin native who works for the New York-based watchdog organization National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), keeps an eye on the news for these stories and then intervenes whenever she can.
“The media loves ‘Bad meth mom arrested!’” Diaz-Tello told Rewire. “That’s how we find out.”
Diaz-Tello, who works pro bono, then reaches out to the lawyers who handle these cases, nearly always court-appointed, overburdened public defenders who might not realize that their clients have been wrongfully charged with a non-crime.
“The law is pretty clear,” she said. “Theoretically, the fact that the law doesn’t permit that charge means it shouldn’t be brought.”
Police and prosecutors, though, nevertheless pursue these cases. The child endangerment statute casts a wide net: The accused may have “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence, by act or omission” done something to place “a child younger than 15 in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment.” As a state jail felony, it carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and between 180 days and two years of imprisonment.
In some instances, babies test positive for drugs soon after they’re born, and doctors and hospitals, in an attempt to comply with another Texas law about reporting babies “born addicted,” pass on their findings to Child Protective Services or local law enforcement officials. In others, ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends file reports with police, CPS, or even directly with prosecutors—sometimes from hundreds of miles away—alleging that their partners have endangered their children while pregnant.
The upshot? District attorneys and cops get to look tough on drug crime. Anti-choice lobbyists and lawmakers get to brag about their compassion for the unborn. And the public gets to sneer and jeer at “bad mommy” mugshots. What rarely gets reported, however, is that after the initial allegations make the evening news, these erroneous endangerment charges don’t stick, thanks to smart public defenders and reproductive rights lawyers like Diaz-Tello.
But dodging the child endangerment charge doesn’t necessarily mean that these women, or their families, can walk away scot-free. Instead, mothers are nearly always persuaded to plead guilty to possession or other drug-related offenses, which often carry heftier penalties of incarceration; judges may take the child endangerment charges into consideration as well.
Pregnant women, particularly those with substance addiction, don’t tend to fare well in the heavily privatized Texas jail and prison system. Earlier this summer, a San Antonio woman was denied the medical methadone treatment she needed to maintain a healthy pregnancy when she was jailed in Guadalupe County. It wasn’t until she reached out to NAPW for intervention—and pleaded with institutional officials and her parole board—that she was released to home monitoring, where she could continue her drug treatment program. Research suggests, too, that alternatives to incarceration, such as substance abuse rehabilitation programs, are less expensive for taxpayers and more effective at reducing recidivism.
And if women are charged after their babies are born, or if they have other children, those kids will often be funneled into Texas’ overtaxed foster care program, especially if there are no family members available to take on the responsibilities of child care. Lawmakers have continuously attempted to privatize this underfunded state agency, even as children die under the supervision of the supposedly superior corporations.
Furthermore, university research suggests that kids whose mothers are incarcerated “may be more likely to experience a disruption in the caregiving environment” compared to those whose fathers are incarcerated, potentially putting those “children at higher risk for insecure or disrupted attachment relationships,” which could “compromise children’s health and development.”
Still, one West Texas prosecutor told Rewire that he believes incarceration is the best solution when pregnant Texans use drugs.
Joel Wilks, a Taylor County assistant district attorney in Abilene who brought a child endangerment charge against a pregnant woman named Juanita Elkins in 2012, told Rewire that he would have liked to put Elkins in prison on the charges, but Texas’ abortion-exemption statute got in the way.
“We were kinda screwed on that deal,” he said. While Wilks believes “there’s no easy solution” in these cases, he said “there’s a deterrence factor” in being able to prosecute pregnant people for ingesting controlled substances, and an opportunity for “retribution.”
Elkins was one of at least two Taylor County women arrested for using drugs while pregnant who have recently faced the state jail felony-level punishment for child endangerment. Elkins was arrested under this statute in 2012; the other woman, Jennifer Silva, was eventually charged the same year after originally testing positive for methamphetamine when she gave birth in 2009.
The endangerment charges against both women were ultimately dropped after Diaz-Tello cold-called their public defenders and helped pass on legal arguments that convinced reluctant prosecutors, including Wilks, to dismiss the cases.
“The beneficial thing about hearing from [NAPW] out of the blue was we didn’t have to go looking for that information,” recalled Kory Robinson, the Abilene criminal defense lawyer who was appointed to defend Silva in 2012. At the time, he had already considered looking at the statute of limitations on Silva’s case due to the length of time between her original drug test and her arrest, but Diaz-Tello helped shore up his case against the legality of bringing the endangerment charges in the first place.
Robinson remembers presenting his case to Taylor County assistant district attorney Dan Joiner, who “got very upset,” he said, throwing up his hands and storming out of their meeting. But two weeks later, in October 2012, Joiner—”a very good, fair guy,” in Robinson’s estimation—dismissed Silva’s endangerment charges. According to the Abilene Reporter-News, Silva no longer has custody of her child.
Less than six months later in the same jurisdiction, assistant district attorney Wilks dropped similar charges against Elkins.
Wilks told Rewire he wanted to prosecute Elkins on charges of drug possession with intent to distribute, with endangerment charges tacked on “for punishment.”
Ultimately, his plan didn’t work. Wilks dropped the endangerment charges, and Elkins pleaded guilty to drug charges in exchange for ten years of probation.
“In some ways, prison gets a bad rap,” Wilks continued, though he conceded that it’s a “tough call.” He thinks incarceration would have helped Elkins and women like her, even if it means turning children over to foster care.
“Prison does keep you away from drugs and stuff,” said Wilks, who noted that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas state prisons and jails, offers a special program for pregnant inmates. (The availability of similar opportunities is varied at county jails, which are generally privatized.) “I think [incarceration] does have a rehabilitation effect,” he said.
Diaz-Tello sees it very differently. She said that if prosecutors had gotten their way, Elkins could have pleaded guilty “to a crime that doesn’t exist,” potentially setting a legal precedent that could inspire the Texas legislature to amend the existing penal code or give courts room to make attempts at reinterpreting the law—ones that could threaten pregnant people’s authority over their own bodies.
Left With No Option
As legislators and law enforcement officials move to toughen fetal homicide laws throughout the country, reproductive rights supporters have grown increasingly nervous at the possibility of these laws affording a kind of legal “personhood” to fetuses that may contradict the rights of pregnant people.
Laws of this kind that don’t carefully provide exceptions removing pregnant people from being charged with harm to their own fetuses could, if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, allow states to prosecute individuals for trying to end their own pregnancies.
In Texas, noted Abilene prosecutor Wilks, “we have very pro-unborn protections as far as DWIs” and other crimes committed against pregnant people.
“But,” he continued, “to make an abortion legal, we have to make some exceptions to that as far as the actions of the mother or a medical professional acting on behalf of the mother.”
Wilks acknowledges that rewriting the Texas Penal Code to enable prosecutors like him to put substance-addicted mothers in prison—but still preserve the overall right to legal abortion—would be a difficult endeavor.
“You could write it a little better, say if your intent is to terminate the life of the fetus then you’re covered,” Wilks mused, suggesting that the law could be clarified to reflect whether an offender was trying to specifically end their pregnancy or whether they had used a substance that happened to result in fetal harm. “But then what do you do? You get somebody who said, ‘I can’t afford an abortion, so I thought I’d try to have a spontaneous abortion by smoking meth.’”
Wilks perhaps inadvertently hit on something that’s been worrying Diaz-Tello ever since she traveled back home to Austin last summer to protest Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, HB 2. In a state where lawmakers have taken guaranteed access to legal abortion care out of the hands of all but the wealthiest Texans, she said, “carrying a pregnancy to term is not always a choice.”
Just two years ago, Texans who live along the western Interstate-20 corridor—in Abilene, Midland, and Odessa—had access to legal abortion care nearby at a handful of Planned Parenthood facilities dotting the windy West Texas landscape. Then, in 2011, the state of Texas slashed family planning funds and ended all public funding of Planned Parenthood, forcing dozens of clinics to close.
Rural areas like the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas were the hardest hit. All legal abortion facilities in the West Texas triangle between El Paso, San Antonio, and Fort Worth closed their doors or stopped providing abortion care.
Then came HB 2, which, in part, requires all abortion facilities to operate as hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers. Earlier this month, a Fifth Circuit Court ruling closed all but eight Texas abortion clinics when it allowed HB 2 to go into full effect. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court granted abortion providers a temporary reprieve from the law; as of October 15, eight clinics had been able to reopen, bringing the total number of legal abortion providers in Texas up to 16.
But because of these court rulings, access to legal abortion care can change overnight in Texas. If federal courts allow HB 2 to go back into effect—and evidence suggests that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would like to see it so—the only legal abortion providers that will remain in Texas will be located in Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The wealthiest West Texans might be able to drive or fly hundreds of miles round-trip to those cities, or to New Mexico. Others might try, as Wilks speculated, to end their pregnancies by other means, risking legal ramifications in the process.
“That’s what happens when you can’t terminate a pregnancy when you want to do so,” said Diaz-Tello. She says that by bringing child endangerment charges against pregnant substance users, the state is effectively saying that “by being a person who is an addict and pregnant, you have some sort of heightened obligation to the state [to preserve fetal life], which is answerable by a prison term.”
Rather than offering substance-addicted pregnant Texans abortion care if they choose—thus circumventing the child endangerment issue—or rehab in their communities, however, officials instead incarcerate them, said Diaz-Tello. This, she noted, could push more marginalized people into a criminal justice system that she described as “broken beyond belief.”
Diaz-Tello is far less optimistic than Wilks about the benefits of incarcerating mothers of young children. She says that it can be difficult to win over hearts and minds, even in the pro-choice and reproductive justice communities, when she talks about people who struggle with substance addiction. However, she points out, the charges these women face are potentially a harbinger of broader restrictions to come.
“Even if people don’t care about the lives of people who are addicted,” said Diaz-Tello, “I hope that they would be able to see that the prosecution of drug-using women are usually just the first volley in going after the most vulnerable, most marginalized population, to build precedent, so that they can go against people who look more like them.”
In other words, attempts to criminalize pregnancy in Texas could not only break up families by forcing pregnant women into prisons and children into foster care; they could be the starting point for a new strike on reproductive rights across the state.
This punitive climate scares many people away from seeking health care they need—a particularly tragic consequence, in light of evidence that shows substance-using pregnant women who have access to prenatal care experience better perinatal outcomes than those who don’t.
At the NAPW offices in New York City, Diaz-Tello says she gets phone calls “every week” from women in the South who fear they’ll go to jail if they seek substance abuse treatment while they’re pregnant.
“The number one thing is that people avoid prenatal care and drug treatment,” as a result of these kinds of laws, said Diaz-Tello. “They’re terrified.”
And they have good reason to be: In July, Tennessee’s SB 1391 had only been in effect for one week before Mallory Loyola was arrested for “exposing her child to amphetamine”—in other words, using drugs while pregnant. Loyola faces a fine of up to $2,500 and up to one year in jail.
For now, women in Texas are ostensibly protected from the kind of treatment those in Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina are facing. Still, as in the past, that hasn’t stopped more child endangerment charges from cropping up. In the last year, two more West Texas women have been arrested, this time in Ector County.
The first case, involving an Odessa woman named Talisha Redic, is particularly heartbreaking: She gave birth prematurely to a child in 2013 that was found to have cocaine in its system. Afterwards, six of Redic’s living children, between the ages of two and 11 years old, tested positive for cocaine in late 2013. The infant died, and a warrant was issued for Redic’s arrest on six counts of child endangerment.
In December 2013, Redic turned herself in to the local authorities; Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland brought a seventh child endangerment charge against Redic for ingesting cocaine while she was pregnant with her now-deceased child.
Bland issued a statement saying that his office had been denied an opportunity to put Redic in jail for life.
“The maximum punishment for the current charges is two years in prison. Had an autopsy been performed, we might have been able to develop evidence sufficient to charge the Defendant with a first-degree felony, which carries the maximum penalty of life,” said Bland in a February 2014 statement. He continued, “Justice has been denied for this infant’s death.”
For failing to complete the autopsy, a grand jury found earlier this year that “the Investigators of the Ector County Medical Examiner’s Office lack credibility, competence and accountability … which has limited our ability to fully investigate the matter at hand.”
Bland then pushed for the medical examiner’s office to be entirely disbanded, which the county commissioner’s court rejected. The chief medical examiner has since left her post for a different county department.
But while Redic awaits trial on her seven charges, Bland has turned his attention to a second Ector County woman, Tiffany Rios, who was arrested in September 2014 after giving birth in March to a child who tested positive for cocaine.
Rios failed to appear at her scheduled September arraignment, which means she hasn’t yet been assigned a public defender. Rewire attempted to reach Rios at the address listed with the court, but was told that she didn’t live at the residence.
When Rewire contacted Bland by phone for comment on the Rios case, he said he couldn’t weigh in on a pending charge, but that he was aware that the Texas Penal Code exempts pregnant women from being charged with injury to their own fetuses.
“My job is to enforce the law and to make sure that justice is served,” Bland said. When asked how incarcerating Rios might serve a larger public safety interest, Bland replied, “That’s not an appropriate question.”
Once again, it appears Farah Diaz-Tello, who hopes to intervene in Rios’ case if she can, has found herself at odds with a prison-minded prosecutor.
“You can do just about anything in the name of a fetus,” Diaz-Tello said.
Naysayers would have us believe that Texans have surrendered to the inevitable, that they have stopped working for reproductive rights after the fervor of the summer of 2013. Nothing I have seen in the last year suggests that they are any less angry, any less passionate, than they were last June.
When people talk about the summer of 2013 in Austin, Texas, they’ll inevitably talk about state Sen. Wendy Davis’ courageous 13-hour filibuster on the senate floor. They’ll talk about her pink sneakers, and her tenacity, and her calm in the face of overwhelming opposition from right-wing lawmakers out to silence her at any opportunity.
But I want to shift the spotlight. I want to talk about the people without whose support Wendy Davis could never have taken the floor that day. The hundreds of witnesses who stayed through the night at the people’s filibuster on June 20, only to be told by a Republican representative that their stories were tiresome, repetitive. The two sisters who cut short a vacation in South Padre Island to arrive at the capitol building in the early morning hours of June 25. The legislative staffers who worked tirelessly collecting testimony, researching precedent, combing through arcane parliamentary procedure. The tens of thousands of people who screamed and cheered and raged and cried in their own living rooms, in their office cubicles, from barstools and in classrooms across Texas, and across the country.
What Wendy Davis did was incredible—but it was no more incredible than the bravery I saw from my fellow Texans over those three weeks in June and July 2013.
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When folks started showing up for what would become known as the “people’s filibuster” at the House State Affairs Committee hearing, I didn’t have high expectations. I arrived at the capitol a little before noon that day, figuring we’d turn up a hundred people, maybe, to tell our right-wing, anti-choice lawmakers all the medically sound, science-based information they were already hell-bent on ignoring.
Twelve hours later, I sat in an overflow room surrounded by cookies, tacos, and pizza donated by people all across the country who’d tuned in to watch the Texas legislature’s finnicky livestream. And I heard the incredible number: seven hundred people had signed up to testify that night. The goal: run out the clock until the end of the special legislative session, suck up as much time as we could, in hopes of blocking what would be known as SB 5, the omnibus anti-abortion bill set to shutter all but a handful of legal abortion providers in a state with 26 million people.
I will never forget watching Lesli Simms testify that night, after State Affairs committee chair Byron Cook told the crowd he was growing tired of our “repetitive” testimony—growing tired of Texans’ abortion stories, of folks’ struggle to find affordable contraception, of hearing about heartbreaking but necessary decisions made to end wanted, but medically untenable, pregnancies.
“My presence isn’t repetitive,” Simms, a first-generation Texan, told Cook. Everyone was rapt. She gestured to the packed room and continued: “Their presence isn’t repetitive. I’m a Black woman, and I’m coming back.”
And she did come back—along with thousands of other Texans who refused to be cowed by the odds. When I talk about bravery, that’s what I mean: the resilience and determination of a people who knew they’d been dealt a losing hand from the get-go. Texas has been deep red for two decades, and the last six or so years have been particularly hard for moderate and liberal Texans alike, as the Tea Party has capitalized on white folks’ fears of an ever-diversifying Texas and of a Black president who will stop at nothing to take away their guns. The game’s been rigged by racist redistricting and voter identification laws meant to dissuade minority voters from exercising their most basic rights as Americans.
And yet still they came.
Over the next week, a thundercloud of orange settled over the state capitol building as Texans from all walks of life gathered to watch our indomitable pro-choice legislators fight for every minute they could find before sine e die, the end of the special legislative session. It’s usually chilly in the capitol building; not so last summer. The heat of a thousand angry—joyfully angry—bodies filled the house and senate galleries, and those who couldn’t snag a coveted seat inside to watch the action set up watch outside chamber doors.
The threat was so, so real: at any moment, we could make the wrong move and send SB 5 into the hands of Republican and Tea Party legislators who would pass the bill without hesitation.
But that thundercloud of orange held fast; by the morning of June 25, only Wendy Davis and 13 hours stood between SB 5’s looming passage and midnight, when Gov. Rick Perry would be forced to call another special session if his party wanted to take up the legislation again.
You know what happened next. You know Davis stood for 13 hours. You know she read the testimony of Texans who’d been turned away from that State Affairs meeting, You know she was reprimanded for putting on a back brace and for talking about family planning funding cuts—not “germane,” apparently, to the matter at hand: whether Texans would ever again be free to decide their own reproductive futures.
You know that with just fifteen minutes left before midnight, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte stood, defiant, and demanded to know: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be heard above the male colleagues in the room?”
You know that moment was when the thundercloud turned into a raging storm, with hundreds of Texans inside the senate gallery and hundreds and hundreds more outside screaming, chanting, and clapping with such ferocity that right-wing legislators couldn’t hear to take a final-moment vote. You know that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tried to change the timestamp on the final vote; you know that sometime in the wee morning hours of June 26, the good news came: SB 5 was dead.
When my husband and I stopped on the way home to grab dinner from the HEB—ranch dip, if I recall, and chips and salsa—I could see dawn hinting at the horizon.
“Were y’all down there? At the capitol?” our cashier asked. We said we were. We left with ranch dip, salsa, and fist-bumps from employees who’d been watching the filibuster from their break room and on their phones inside the store.
But a matter of days later, we were back at the capitol again: this time with thousands of orange-clad Texans swarming the state capitol lawn. Gov. Perry had called a second special session, and this time he came to pass the bill at all costs. Perry jammed the capitol with state troopers, hoping to subdue what David Dewhurst had derided as an “unruly mob.” Anti-choice groups bussed in students from out of state, and evangelical preachers convened in the outdoor rotunda, turning what had been a place of quiet refuge for overwhelmed protestors into a circle of soapbox misogyny.
And, you know, it worked. What was SB 5 became HB 2, and this time the Republican Party wasn’t going to be caught off-guard by a bunch of scrappy liberals. They confiscated our tampons at the senate chamber doors, and accused us of trying to bring 18—18!—jars of human feces into the senate gallery, jars which to this day have never turned up in evidence. And they passed the bill, just before midnight on July 12.
I filed my news story—”Texas Senate Approves Omnibus Anti-Abortion Bill“—from a crowded hallway somewhere on the third floor of the capitol building. Floors below me, state troopers began arresting—sometimes violently—the protestors who refused to leave, in last-ditch acts of civil disobedience. People streamed by me, sobbing. On the capitol lawn outside, we milled around, wondering what—anything please what—we could do next. But the night was over.
I woke up on the morning of July 13—a Saturday—feeling broken, enraged, helpless. Even after a few hours’ sleep, I was more exhausted than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Days before, I’d made the mistake of telling my husband I’d have brunch with his father-in-law and some of his work colleagues. When it came time to get out of bed, I didn’t even bother. I don’t know what I told my husband to tell the guys. I didn’t really give a fuck. I wanted to sleep, I wanted to cry, I wanted to fall through the mattress, through the floor, through the crawlspace, through the dirt, down deep into the Texas soil beneath our house and nest there, hide where no one could tell me it was time to go to another meeting, time to file another story, time to gather up my shit and move to another hearing room, time to plead with lawmakers who couldn’t even be bothered to pretend to half-listen to reason, lawmakers who played on their phones and passed notes while my fellow Texans broke their hearts open between pink limestone walls, telling stories they’d never even whispered aloud before that summer.
So I slept, and then I ate some Lipton instant rice with about half a tub of sour cream on top. That’s what I eat when I’m sad. Lipton instant Spanish rice. Daisy Light sour cream. I think I Instagrammed it before I went back to sleep, grudgingly setting my alarm for 4 p.m. Because I had another thing to do: drink beer. And I dreaded it.
Which is, uh, unusual for me. Let’s say that. Unusual. “Dread” and “drink beer” are about as far apart as two things can get on my emotional spectrum. But the Saturday after HB 2 finally passed was the same Saturday I’d scheduled our usual Austin feminist meet-up—really, more of a “drink up” group that’d been meeting monthly since November 2011. We called it #ATXFem, most of us knew each other from Twitter, and it had come to be sort of a thing. We’d wear name tags, drink beers, do feminist coloring projects, talk shit, organize. And for the first time in more than 18 months, I didn’t want to go hang out and get drunk with a bunch of feminists.
But #ATXFem is sort of my baby. So I dragged my ass out of bed, threw on my “Wendy F’N Davis” tank top, and arrived late to my own Internet nerd party.
When I walked into the bar, all I could see was orange. The Dog & Duck, a malty-smelling pub just a few blocks from the state capitol building, was packed from, well, dog to duck with people wearing orange t-shirts. I didn’t make it to the beer line for ten minutes—there were too many hugs, too many tears. That Saturday was our biggest #ATXFem meeting yet, and we closed down the bar making plans for what to do next: where to donate, who to call, who to write.
Since that day, I have seen nothing that looks like a loss of passion or a surrender to the inevitable, though GOP pundits and mainstream Texas newspapers seem to love the narrative that progressive, liberal and moderate Texans forgot everything they learned last summer as soon as they were home safe, tucked in their beds.
What I have seen is an incredible outpouring of time, of money, of soul. Because the knowledge that Texans gained last summer—how to testify in front of a committee hearing, how to contact their legislators, hell, how to just know the names of their representatives—can’t be taken away from them. They now see how the system works, and how the system has been manipulated by right-wing lawmakers who have grown lazy and self-satisfied, comfortable with their bully pulpit.
Who can say that Texans have lost faith, when 19,000 people sent comments opposing HB 2 to the state Department of State Health Services (DSHS), demanding our health-care regulators do whatever they could to mitigate the damage done by the new law? Never in its history had DSHS received that many comments on any new regulations. That, to me, does not signal surrender.
Nor did it signal surrender when, in February, Texans lined up once again to testify before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee’s interim legislative hearing, scheduled by right-wing lawmakers to be an assessment of their own “legislative achievements” in women’s health care. Instead, the orange army turned up once again, anxious to discuss the terrible impact of Republican-fueled family planning funding cuts and the clockwork-like shuttering of abortion clinics in the wake of HB 2.
Is Fund Texas Women a new nonprofit organization—started by a 20-year-old Austin woman—that helps rural Texans pay for the bus tickets and hotel rooms they now need in order to travel hundreds of miles roundtrip for legal abortion procedures, an act of forgetting? The nascent West Fund now operates out of El Paso, helping West Texans with the resources they need to access legal abortion in a part of the state that has seen the closure of three abortion providers in the last year.
Nor has Nuestro Texas, a collaborative study and storytelling project from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights, shied away from calling what havoc legislators have wrought in the Rio Grande Valley—rising and troubling reproductive organ cancer rates, rapidly shuttering family planning clinics that never even provided abortion care—a “human rights violation.”
When I traveled to East Texas earlier this spring to cover the closure of the Beaumont Whole Woman’s Health clinic—the last abortion provider in East Texas—I talked to college students who’d felt empowered to finally start a feminist club on the Lamar University campus, and University of Texas at Tyler students who told me they tuned into the filibuster last year, online, day after day. They told me that last summer has made it easier, just a little bit easier, for people to see shades of purple behind the pine curtain.
I know Battleground Texas volunteers in Dallas and Fort Worth who show up, week after week, to phone bank and block-walk for people like Sameena Karmally, the North Texas woman who is boldly challenging HB 2 sponsor Jodie “Rape Kits Clean A Woman Out” Laubenberg’s house seat. I see the Lilith Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, and the TEA Fund going stronger than ever before, organizing fundraisers and advocacy trainings for folks in Houston, San Antonio, and across the state.
I have seen Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, return to court time and time again for her right—and for other abortion providers’ rights—to provide legal abortion care in the State of Texas, despite the looming shadow of the anti-choice Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Two abortion providers in Dallas, whose clinics are doomed to shutter this September when HB 2’s mandatory ambulatory surgical center operational requirements go into place, successfully sued a hospital that tried to revoke their admitting privileges because they provide legal abortion care.
What Texans learned last summer can’t be unlearned. The passion they felt won’t be diminished, and they cannot and will not be unbound from their comrades in reproductive justice now. As I discovered that day last July, after I had lost all sense of purpose, any glimmer of hope: We now have thousands of sisters, brothers, family members, across the state who know what it is to proceed against all odds in righteous, joyous anger.