Analysis Health Systems

We Deserve Better: Reproductive Health Care in Crisis in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley [Video]

Andrea Grimes

Over the past several months, Rewire 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. Watch Grimes' video dispatch from the Valley.

Over the past several months, Rewire 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.

Transcript

Slide: Rewire logo in orange, black and grey

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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.

News Abortion

Blackburn Punts on Next Steps in Anti-Choice Congressional Investigation

Christine Grimaldi

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) deflected questions about targeting later abortion care in her interview with Rewire.

What are the next steps for the U.S. House of Representatives investigation into a market of aborted “baby body parts” that according to all other accounts—three other congressional committees, 13 states, and a Texas grand jury—doesn’t exist?

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, said she had not decided on the topic of the next hearing, nor whether to subpoena the leader of the anti-choice front group fueling the investigation.

“We’ll have something that we’ll look at in September, but no decisions [yet],” Blackburn said in a July 14 interview with Rewire.

Blackburn’s remarks followed a press conference coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the first Center for Medical Progress (CMP) videos that still serve as the basis for the $1.2 million investigation.

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“We’re continuing to pursue [options], we have a tremendous amount of information that has come through to us through whistleblowers and individuals, so we’ll continue to work,” she said.

Congress adjourned for a seven-week recess the day after Blackburn presented House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) with the panel’s interim update, which repeats many of the same widely discredited allegations from CMP and other anti-choice groups cited in the document.

The panel will release a final report by the end of the year. That’s the only definitive next step in an investigation that started with allegedly falsified evidence of fetal tissue trafficking and pivoted in recent months to later abortion care, including subpoenaing a prominent provider and calling for a state-level criminal investigation of a university and abortion clinic supposedly in collusion.

Blackburn would not commit to subpoenaing David Daleiden, the CMP leader under felony indictment in Texas and the subject of lawsuits in California. Republicans’ interim update called Daleiden an “investigative journalist,” even though more than two dozen of the nation’s preeminent journalists and journalism scholars recently filed an amicus brief explaining why that isn’t so in the federal court case between CMP and the National Abortion Federation.

“I think it’s inappropriate to predetermine any decisions,” Blackburn said about the possibility of a Daleiden appearance before the panel. “We’re an investigative panel. We’re going go where the facts take us.”

The interim update indicates that the investigation will continue to focus on later abortion care. Blackburn, however, deflected questions about targeting later abortion care in her interview with Rewire.

Blackburn seemingly walked back the pledge she made at a faith-based conference last month to pursue contempt of Congress charges for “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion”—who she alleged have not cooperated with her subpoenas. Blackburn’s panel spokesperson previously told Rewire that the panel required the names of those involved in fetal tissue transactions and research in order to understand how things work.

Democrats have repeatedly objected to the subpoenas, escalating their concerns after Blackburn initially failed to redact researchers’ names and contact information in her call for a federal abortion inquiry.

“We’re going to pursue getting the truth and delivering a report that is factual, that is truthful, and can be utilized by the authorizing committees,” Blackburn said in response to a question about the contempt charges at the press conference.

Blackburn and her fellow Republicans had no such reservations about going after Democrats on the panel.  They accused Democrats of furnishing subpoena recipients with a memo to subvert requests for information. The final pages of the interim update includes a chart alleging the extent to which various organizations, hospitals, procurement companies, abortion providers, and others have or have not complied with the subpoenas.

Emails obtained by Rewire show a Democratic staffer refuting such accusations last month. Democrats produced their own status update for members, not a memo advising noncompliance for subpoena recipients, the staffer said in a June email to a Republican counterpart on the panel.

Commentary Law and Policy

Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Merrick Garland is now officially the longest Supreme Court nominee to go without confirmation hearings or a vote in U.S. history.

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s selection to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, now has the dubious distinction of being the longest U.S. Supreme Court nominee ever to go without a vote to confirm or reject his appointment, thanks to Senate Republicans’ refusal to do their jobs.

I can’t say it any differently. This has been an utter, total failure by grown men, and a few women, in the Senate to do the kind of thing they’re supposed to in exchange for getting paid by the rest of us. And after nearly a decade of unprecedented—and I mean unprecedentedobstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees writ large, there’s no flowery language that can capture how our federal courts’ slow burn on the the Republicans’ watch has now caught full fire with the fight over Garland’s nomination.

Instead what we have are dry, hard facts. A century ago, Justice Louis Brandeis was forced to wait 125 days before his confirmation to become the first Jewish justice on the Court. Justice Scalia died on February 13 of this year. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16. Wednesday marked 126 days of zero Senate action on that nomination.

And since Congress is now on recess, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

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It’s not just that the Senate hasn’t held a vote. They have held no hearings. Several senators have refused to meet with Garland. They have taken. No. Action. Not a bit. And here’s the kicker: None of us should be surprised.

President Obama had no sooner walked off the Rose Garden lawn after announcing Garland’s nomination in March than Senate Republicans announced their plan to sit on it until after the presidential election. Eight months away. In November.

Senate Republicans’ objection isn’t to Garland himself. He’s a moderate who has generally received bipartisan praise and support throughout his career and should, on any other day, sail through the confirmation process. As compared with both of President Obama’s other appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Garland is practically a gift to Senate Republicans in all his moderate-aging-white-guy-ness. I mean, who would have thought that of all the nominees Republicans were going to double-down their obstruction efforts on, it would be Justice Dad?

Instead, their objection is to the fact that the democratic process should guarantee they lose control of the Supreme Court. Unless, of course, they can stop that process.

Conservatives have spent decades investing in the federal courts as a partisan tool. They did so by building an infrastructure of sympathetic conservative federal judges through appointments when in executive power, and by blocking liberal attempts to do the same when in the political minority. It’s an investment that has largely paid off. Federal circuit appeals courts like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth issue reliably conservative opinions regularly, thanks to aggressive appointments by conservatives during the Reagan and Bush years.

Meanwhile, thanks to conservative obstruction under Democratic administrations—most egregiously under President Obama—71 district court seats currently sit vacant. Twenty-four of those seats are in jurisdictions considered by the courts themselves to be judicial emergencies: places where the caseload is so great or the seat has remained vacant for so long the court is at risk of no longer functioning.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would want to keep their grip on the federal judiciary given the kinds of issues before it: These are the courts that hear immigration and detention cases, challenges to abortion restrictions, employment discrimination cases, as well as challenges to voting rights restrictions. Just to name a few. But as long as there are no judges, the people being directly affected are left in limbo as their cases drag on and on and on.

Our federal courts of appeals are no better. Nine federal appellate seats sit vacant, five in jurisdictions deemed judicial emergencies.

These vacancies have nominees. Senate Republicans just refuse to confirm them.

And no, the other side doesn’t do this. Federal judgeships have always been political. But never have the Democrats used the judiciary as a blatantly partisan extension of their elected members.

The refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination is the most visible example of the conservatives’ drive to maintain control over the federal courts, but it’s hardly their most blatant display of sheer partisanship. I’m guessing that is yet to come when, should they lose the presidential election, Senate Republicans face the choice of quickly confirming Garland or continuing their stand-off indefinitely. And given what we’ve seen of the election cycle so far, do we really think Senate Republicans are going to suddenly grow up and do their jobs? I hate to say it, folks, but Merrick Garland isn’t getting confirmed anytime soon.