"Abortion has been worse on the African-American community than the slave trade or Jim Crow," said Robert Woodson, a panelist at a sparsely attended Conservative Political Action Conference panel on reaching out to more diverse voting populations.
“Abortion has been worse on the African-American community than the slave trade or Jim Crow,” said Robert Woodson, a panelist at a sparsely attended Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) panel on reaching out to more diverse voting populations.
Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said that social issues like abortion were a better strategy for reaching out than assuming low-income or minority voters pick Democrats because they want handouts.
Woodson pushed back after the white moderator, Revolvis Consulting partner Jason Roe, said, “Democrats, using nonprofits and going into these communities, have lots of goodies to offer. And our guys aren’t exactly in the offering goodies business.”
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“It’s not ‘goodies,'” Woodson said. “It bothers me when people assume that lower-income people respond to gifts—food stamps, or things that are given to them. Nobody wants to be dependent. So let’s assume that people want a hand up, and not a handout.”
But Woodson and the other three speakers on the all-male panel (two panelists, including Woodson, were Black, and two were white), all said that Republicans should “renew our commitment to communicating how our policies will help,” as Roe put it, rather than “moderate our policies.”
Conservatives often invoke historical racism as an argument for ending safe, legal abortion care. Earlier this week, Alabama state Rep.Mary McClurkin (R-Indian Springs) came under fire from her Black colleagues after she compared a bill that would ban abortion before many women know they are pregnant to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case that ended legal segregation in the United States.
Recently, Porter spoke with Rewire about the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike. Her film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.
Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED focuses on the targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws designed to close clinics. But, as Porter told Rewire in a phone interview, TRAPPED is also about “normal people,” the providers and clinic staff who have been demonized due to their insistence that women should have access to abortion and their willingness to offer that basic health-care service.
Between 2010 and 2015, state legislators adopted some 288 laws regulating abortion care, subjecting providers and patients to restrictions not imposed on their counterparts in other medical specialties.
In Alabama, where most of the film takes place, abortion providers are fighting to keep their clinics open in the face of countless—and often arbitrary—regulations, including a requirement that the grass outside the facilities be a certain length and one mandating abortions be performed in far more “institutional” and expensive facilities than are medically necessary.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month on a Texas case regarding the constitutionality of some TRAP laws: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The lawsuit challenges two provisions in HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement applied to Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, Texas, and Reproductive Services in El Paso, Texas, as well as the requirement that every abortion clinic in the state meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. It is within this context that Porter’s film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.
Recently, the award-winning filmmaker spoke with Rewire about the Supreme Court case, the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue, and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike.
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Rewire: What has changed for the clinicians featured in TRAPPED since the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January?
Dawn Porter: Now, in Alabama, the legislature has passed a law banning clinics within 2,000 feet of a school. There’s a lot of frustration because the clinicians abide by the laws, and then more are put in place that makes it almost impossible to operate.
Everyone has been really focused on Dalton Johnson’s clinic [the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives] because the clinic he moved to was across the street from a school, but the law has also affected Gloria [Gray, the director of the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama]—and that’s not something a lot of us initially realized. She’s afraid this will shut her down for good. I would say this has been a very hard blow for her. I think Dalton was perhaps more prepared for it. He will fight the law.
The good news is that it’s not like either of these clinics will close tomorrow; this gets decided when they go back for relicensing at the end of the year. Right now, they’re in the middle of legal proceedings.
Of course, we’re all also awaiting the Supreme Court decision on Whole Woman’s Health. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now, for these clinic owners in particular, but for all clinic owners [nationwide] really.
Rewire: Let’s talk about that. Later this month, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on that case. Even if the Supreme Court rules that these laws are unconstitutional, do you think the case will change the environment around reproductive rights?
DP: It really depends on how the Court writes the decision. There may be no case in which it’s more important for the Court to have a comprehensive decision. It’s a multiheaded hydra. There’s always something that can close a clinic, so it’s crucially important that this Court rules that nothing can hinder a woman’s right to choose. It’s important that this Court makes it clear that all sham laws are unconstitutional.
Rewire: We know abortion providers have been killed and clinics have been bombed. When filming, did you have safety concerns for those involved?
DP: Definitely. The people who resort to violence in their anti-choice activities are—I guess the most charitable way to describe it—unpredictable. I think the difficult thing is you can’t anticipate what an irrational person will do. We took the safety of everyone very seriously. With Dr. Willie Parker [one of two doctors in the entire state of Mississippi providing abortions], for example, we wouldn’t publicize if he’d be present at a screening of the film. We never discussed who would appear at a screening. It’s always in the back of your mind that there are people who feel so strongly about this they would resort to violence. Dr. Parker said he’s aware of the risks, but he can’t let them control his life.
We filmed over the course of a few years, and honestly it took me a while to even ask about safety. In one of our last interviews, I asked Dr. Parker about safety and it was a very emotional interview for both of us. Later during editing, there was the shooting at the Colorado clinic and I called him in a panic and asked if he wanted me to take our interview out of the film. He said no, adding, “I can’t let irrational terrorists control my life.” I think everybody who does this work understands what’s at risk.
Rewire: It seems Texas has become ground zero for the fight for abortion access and because of that, the struggles in states like Alabama can get lost in the shuffle. Why did you choose to focus on Alabama?
DP: I met Dr. Parker when he was working in Mississippi. The first meeting I did with him was in December 2012 and he told me that Alabama had three clinics and that no one was talking about it. He introduced me to the clinic owners and it was clear that through them, the entire story of abortion access—or the denial of it—could be told. The clinic owners were all working together; they were all trying to figure out what to do legally so they could continue operating. I thought Alabama was unexplored, but also the clinic owners were so amazing.
To tell you the truth, I tried to avoid Texas for a long time. If you follow these issues around reproductive rights closely, and I do, you can sort of feel like, “Uh, everyone knows about Texas.” But, actually, a lot of people don’t know about Texas. I had this view that everyone knew what was going on, but I realized I was very insulated in this world. I started with Texas relatively late, but decided to explore it because we were following the lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights and they were saying one of their cases would likely go to the Supreme Court, and Whole Woman’s Health was most likely. They, of course, were right.
When you’re making a film, you’re emerged in a world and you have to take a step back and think about what people really know, not what you think they know or assume they know.
Rewire: In TRAPPED, you spliced in footage of protests from the 1970s, which made me think about how far we’ve come since Roe v. Wade. Sometimes it feels like we’ve come very far, other times it feels like nothing has changed. Why do you think abortion is such a contentious topic?
DP: I don’t think it’s actually that contentious, to tell you the truth. I think there is a very vocal minority who are extreme. If you poll them, most Americans are pro-choice and believe in the right to abortion in at least some circumstances. Most people are not “100 percent, no abortion” all the time. People who are, are very vocal. I think this is really a matter of having people who aren’t anti-choice be vocal about their beliefs.
Abortion is not the number one social issue. It was pretty quiet for years, but we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans heavily influencing policy. The conservative agenda has been elevated and given a larger platform.
We need to change public thinking about this. Part of that conversation is destigmatizing abortion and not couching it in a shameful way or qualifying it. Abortion is very common; many, many women have them. Three in ten U.S. women have had an abortion before the age of 45. I think that part of the work that needs to be done is around stigma and asking why are we stigmatizing this. What is the agenda around this?
Evangelicals have done a great job of making it seem like this is an issue of morality, and it’s just not. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or anti-choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. I can respect different opinions, but I can’t respect someone who tries to subvert the political process. People with power and influence who tamper with the political process to impose their beliefs on other people—I really can’t respect that.
Rewire: There are a lot of entry points for conversations about abortion access. What brought you to focus on TRAP laws?
DP: People often discuss abortion in terms of morality, but that’s not what we should be talking about. The reason why these laws have been so effective is because they successfully harm the least powerful of the group they’re targeting. Who’s getting picked on, who’s suffering the most? Women of color, people who are low-income, people who don’t have health insurance. There’s something so unjust about how these laws are disproportionately affecting these populations, and that really bothered me. I’m certainly interested in abortion as a topic, but I’m also interested in politics and power and how those things take shape to hurt the most vulnerable.
Rewire: In TRAPPED, we get to see a very personal side of all the clinicians and providers. One clinician discusses having to be away from her six children all of the time because she’s always at the clinic. We get to see Dr. Willie Parker at church with his family. And it was amazing to learn that the remaining providers in Alabama are friends who regularly eat dinner together. Was it intentional to humanize providers in a way we don’t usually get to see?
DP: Absolutely. The anti-choice side has successfully painted the picture of an abortion provider as this really shady, sinister person. I spent three years embedded in these clinics, and that couldn’t be further from what I saw. These are passionate, brave people, but they’re also very normal people. They’re not superheroes or super villains. They’re just normal people. It’s not that they don’t think about what they’re doing; they’re just very resilient and courageous in a way that makes me very proud. I wanted people to see that.
Rewire: Honestly before watching TRAPPED, I never thought about the personal toll that pressure takes on providers. Dalton Johnson used his retirement funds in order to continue providing abortion care. In several scenes, we see an emotional Gloria Gray struggling with whether or not to keep fighting these laws. Do you think people generally understand what it’s costing providers—financially and emotionally—to continue operating?
DP: I don’t think a lot of us think about that. People like Dalton are saying, “I would rather cash out my retirement than give in to you people.” We should not be asking people to make that kind of sacrifice. That should not be happening.
We also don’t spend enough time thinking about or talking about all of the things that have happened to create the conditions we’re now dealing with. It’s like a perfect storm. Medical schools are not training abortion providers, and the abortion providers that are around are getting older and retiring. Of course laws keep getting passed that make it more and more difficult to run a clinic. In this kind of environment, can you really blame people for not wanting to be providers? Especially when there’s the added pressure of having to take not just your own safety into account, but the safety of your family.
This is why so few go into this field. As the number of providers in some states continues to get eliminated, the burden left on those standing is exponentially greater.
The reason why we have a crisis around abortion care is not just laws, but because we have so few physicians. There are all of these factors that have come together, and we didn’t even get to cover all of it in the documentary, including the fact that Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion [under federal law. Seventeen states, however, use state funds to cover abortion care for Medicaid recipients.] A lot of this is the result of conservative lobbying. People have to be aware of all the pressures providers are under and understand that we didn’t get to this point of crisis accidentally.
Rewire: It can feel hopeless, at least to me. What gives you hope when it comes to this unrelenting battle for reproductive rights in this country?
DP: I don’t feel hopeless at all. I feel like it’s really important to be aware and vigilant and connect these dots. I wanted to help people understand the complications and the challenges providers are up against.
These providers have done their part, and now it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. People can vote. Vote for people who prioritize providing education and medical care, rather than people who spend all of their time legislating an abortion clinic. Alabama is in a huge fiscal crisis. The education system is a mess. The Medicaid system is a mess, and the whole Alabama state legislature worked on a bill that would affect a couple of abortion clinics. Voters need to decide if that’s OK. I think this is all very hard, but it’s not at all hopeless.
A lot has been written about how Texas' reproductive health-care restrictions codified into law in 2013 disproportionately hit low-income women of color and Latinas in particular. What's not been covered by the media, or covered enough, is how HB 2 affects undocumented people.
Read more of our coverage of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt here.
It has been almost three years since abortion providers filed their first challengeto Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law. As we approach March 2, the day the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments for and against Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a lot has been written about how the reproductive health-care restrictions codified into law in 2013 disproportionately hit low-income women of color and Latinas in particular. What’s not been covered by the media, or covered enough, is how HB 2 affects undocumented people.
HB 2 contains multiple abortion restrictions, including a 20-week abortion ban, but on Wednesday the Supreme Court will specifically hear arguments on the regulations requiring abortion providers to be affiliated with nearby hospitals and limiting abortion care to ambulatory surgical centers. The implications of the case are much larger, however. As Rewirehas reported, what’s at stake in the case is not just the future of abortion access in Texas, but the impact the Court’s decision will have on clinic shutdown restrictions in states nationwide.
There are roughly 1.5 million undocumented residents in the state of Texas, 78 percent of whom emigrated from Mexico. Despite concerns from politicians that the undocumented population is growing in the state, as the Texas Tribune reported, the Migration Policy Institute found that it has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, with more than half of the state’s undocumented immigrants having lived in Texas for more than a decade.
As Texas’ undocumented population remains fixed in place, the state legislature has fought to deny this group basic human rights, whether it’s by challenging an Obama administration executive action designed to expand temporary protection from deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants—effectively stopping Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) in its tracks—or pushing to have the state’s family detention centers licensed as child-care facilities with reduced standards. The state’s enactment of HB 2 is yet another example of the way it has targeted one of the country’s most vulnerable communities.
As the Center for Reproductive Rights reported, it is the 2.5 million Latinas of reproductive age in Texas that are disproportionately affected by HB 2, which has closed more than half of the state’s clinics, most of them in predominately Latino areas.Though it’s unclear what percentage of those Latinas are undocumented, what is known is that immigrant women already experience significant barriers when trying to access sexual and reproductive health care and HB 2 only made things worse.
Ana Rodriguez DeFrates is on the front lines of the reproductive rights battleas the Texas Latina Advocacy Network state policy and advocacy director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), one of more than 40 organizations that filed an amicus brief in Whole Woman’s Health. DeFrates says that “without question,” those most affected by HB 2 are the people already adversely affected by current health-care practices and immigration laws.
“We’re a reproductive [justice] organization in Texas and we see every day that it’s the same population of people most impacted that are not invited to the conversation about the policies that impact them,” DeFrates told Rewire. “I can say that ignoring the implications of immigration status [whether a person is a citizen or undocumented] when it comes to accessing health care—especially sexual and reproductive health care—would be to paint a very inaccurate and incomplete picture of what is happening in Texas.”
Since HB 2 went into effect, the southernmost region of Texas—the Rio Grande Valley—has lost all but one abortion clinic, Whole Woman’s Health of McAllen. If the remaining clinic in the Rio Grande Valley were to shut down, the only option would be driving north to San Antonio to the nearest abortion provider, but that’s not really an option if you’re undocumented. Transportation and immigration checkpoints are just two of the hurdles undocumented people must clear under HB 2.
“There are internal immigration checkpoints that exist upwards of 100 miles north of the actual Texas/Mexico border,” DeFrates told Rewire. “If you’re undocumented, you simply couldn’t get to the heart of the state where abortion access is available. And even then, we’re assuming you can take the time off work it would require for the multiple days it now requires because of increased restrictions that now mandate increased office visits and increased wait times.”
“We’re also assuming … that you have the money and means available to travel that distance and that you have child care available to you. It assumes a lot. You cannot separate immigration from HB 2 or bigger conversations surrounding health care. They are operating together and impacting lives together,” DeFrates said.
Advocates in Texas working for organizations like NLIRH are doing more than fighting for access to abortion; they are fighting strong anti-immigrant sentiments. In the state, unions representing Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)work with anti-immigrant groups to undermine immigration policies and promote anti-immigrant views. As the Texas Medical Association reported, legislation from 1986 to 2013 has made it increasingly difficult for undocumented people with chronic illnesses to receive safe and affordable care, forcing them to rely on costly emergency rooms, often after their condition has worsened. Whether Texas legislators set out to target low-income people of color cannot be confirmed, but advocates say intent hardly matters when vulnerable people are suffering.
A few months ago, organizers at NLIRH met a woman who would have to walk 45 minutes from her colonia to the nearest bus stop.
“That is a long walk and she is scared to make that walk because of the increasing number of law enforcement she encounters,” DeFrates said. “She’s scared because she’s undocumented, but she needs to get to that bus because that’s her only way to her health-care appointment.”
The woman told NLIRH organizers that she would rather live with the pain in her abdomen than risk deportation or separation from her family.The woman’s circumstances and concerns call to mind Blanca Borrego, the undocumented mother of three arrested this past September when seeking treatment for a cyst that was causing abdominal pain at Texas’ Memorial Hermann Medical Group Northeast Women’s Healthcare clinic.
The staff member who called the authorities on Borrego because she provided the staff with a fake driver’s licensesaidthey were simply “enforcing the law,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Situations like this could be avoided if, like the State of California for example, Texas issued driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Instead, Texas is arguing that President Obama’s deferred action executive order would cause the state to “incur significant costs in issuing driver’s licenses to DAPA beneficiaries.” If an injunction had not been placed on DAPA, Borrego would have been eligible for deferred action.
According to Texas’ attorneys, subsidizing licenses for DAPA beneficiaries would cause the state to lose a minimum of $130.89 on each license issued. But a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that with full implementation of DAPA and Obama’s other executive actions, Texas could see returns of nearly $59 million.
Even before HB 2, things were bad for Latinas and undocumented women,who had few places to turn for contraception and other preventive reproductive health services after 2011when Texas gutted the public family planning program. Texas invested $50 million in a new program that combines family planning with other health services, like diabetes screening; Planned Parenthood, however, was not allowed to participate. The Center for Reproductive Justice reports that Latinas have far fewer options for controlling their reproduction and are two times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy than their white counterparts.
“At best, these policies are ignorant. At worst, they are attacks on our communities,” DeFrates said. “When you look at how many Latinas are dying of cervical cancer, when you look at how many clinic closures occurred as a result of the 2011 budget cuts in Texas where two-thirds of family planning was slashed, when you look at where these communities are and who inhabits them, when it seems no one is considering the needs of low-income people of color, one has to question whether these policies are rooted in racism.”
The majority of cervical cancers are preventable, yet Latinas continue to die without adequate testing and care; they have the highest incidence of cervical cancer among all ethnic or racial groups and the second highest mortality rate. As NBC Latino reported, the situation is even worse for Latinas in Texas, whose rates are 19 percent higher than the national average and 11 percent higher than the national average for Latinas.
“There is no reason in this day and age why you should be dying from this, yet Latinas in Texas are dying at a higher rate than other people. What did the Texas legislature do in response? Instead of ensuring that not one more woman died from this very preventable disease, it cut the number of providers that can participate in the cervical cancer screening program. That directly impacts Latinas and makes it harder for undocumented women to access preventive care, and we told them that. We told them that through organizing, through public testimony at the capitol, yet they moved forward with it,” DeFrates said.
As March 2 approaches, advocates like DeFrates are trying to remain hopeful that the Court will recognize the overarching implications of HB 2 and the ways in which the law puts already vulnerable communities at greater risk. The recent normalizing of anti-immigrant sentiments espoused by those seeking the highest public office—the presidency—can understandably make it hard to remain positive, but DeFrates says it’s imperative to continue fighting.
“For us in Texas, this isn’t a short-termissue. It’s not about one case or an election or whether or not we’re in legislative session,” DeFrates said. “It’s a long-term fight. We’re going to continue centering the lives of those directly impacted because bad things happen when the voices of those most impacted aren’t heard. In Texas, this is really life or death.”