Lucy Felix, Texas Latina Advocacy Network field coordinator for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, opens a junta communitaria near Brownsville, Texas, by distributing a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s early March, and the Latinas in this colonia in the Rio Grande Valley have gathered in a neighbor’s kitchen. They’re here to learn how they can get involved in Nuestro Texas, a human rights campaign to restore reproductive health services in the Rio Grande Valley and ensure broader reproductive health access for Latinas. “Reproductive justice is about human rights,” Felix says. “It doesn’t matter where you live or where you were born or whether you have papers or not. You have a human right to health care.”
This kind of framing is not exactly what you hear in the halls of the Texas State Capitol these days. But organizing around human rights is taking root in the Rio Grande Valley, home to a high immigrant population and poor, rural women most affected by Texas’ draconian reproductive health policies.
Increasingly, these kitchen conversations are traveling beyond the Valley—to Austin, Washington, and most recently Geneva. Felix and I traveled to Geneva from March 10 to 14 for the periodic review of the United States by the UN Human Rights Committee. Every four to six years, the United States is called to defend its human rights record to this body of independent experts who assess whether it is meeting its human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). When the United States ratified this foundational human rights treaty in 1992, it agreed to incorporate its provisions into domestic law, including reproductive rights protected by the rights to life, non-discrimination, equality, family, and privacy. The periodic review process provides an opportunity to hold the United States to these promises.
We lobbied behind the scenes and testified before the committee, sharing stories documented in Nuestra Salud, Nuestra Voz, Nuestro Texas: The Fight for Reproductive Health Care in the Rio Grande Valley, the joint human rights report released late last year by our organizations, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH). In preparation for the review process, CRR also submitted a separate report to the committee, highlighting key violations of women’s reproductive rights in the United States.
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Felix took the floor at a formal briefing to explain why immigrant women face especially high barriers in accessing reproductive health care—policies excluding many immigrants from insurance coverage, slashed funding for family planning clinics on which immigrant women heavily rely, and abortion restrictions that have closed the only clinics in the Valley. She told the story of her friend Alma, a mother of six children, whose last pregnancy was unplanned. Alma has not been able to afford contraception since Texas severely cut funding for family planning clinics in 2011. She couldn’t afford an abortion in the United States, and her attempts to get an illegal one in Mexico proved fruitless. She carried the pregnancy to term, but she admits it’s difficult providing for such a large family. Alma still cannot afford contraception and worries she’ll get pregnant again.
The Human Rights Committee clearly listened. In its Concluding Observations on the U.S., released Thursday, the committee admonished the United States for policies excluding millions of immigrants and their families from health coverage in violation of several fundamental human rights protected by the ICCPR, including the rights to privacy, protection of the family, and equal protection of the laws. The committee recommended that the United States “identify ways to facilitate access of undocumented immigrants and immigrants residing lawfully in the U.S. for less than five years and their families to adequate health care, including reproductive health care services.”
This recommendation tracks concerns raised by committee members during the review with the U.S. government. One member suggested that policies limiting health insurance coverage based on immigration status were both irrational and mean-spirited, especially in light of the dire consequences for women in need of prenatal care. Another raised the issue of abortion access: “More and more, access to abortion seems to be dependent on where a woman lives, especially poor, immigrant, and rural women disproportionately affected by [state abortion] restrictions.”
Did the United States agree these laws violated women’s rights to life and equality?
We are thrilled that recommendations we made in the Nuestro Texas report were lifted up by an important human rights body. Our work now shifts to turning these recommendations into binding policies, both at the state level, to restore and expand family planning funding to reach women not covered by Medicaid due to their immigration status, and at the federal level, to repeal the exclusions of immigrants in all public insurance programs. The recommendations will lend momentum to the passage of the HEAL Immigrant Women and Families Act, introduced on March 13 by Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM). This legislation is an important first step in eliminating barriers to care by reestablishing health coverage options and health-care services for lawfully present immigrant women and their families.
The Human Rights Committee also handed the women of the Rio Grande Valley an important symbolic victory by recognizing that their struggles are not just intractable systemic problems that government can’t fix, either because policy makers don’t care or don’t see them. These are human rights violations that demand government action through policy change and equitable distribution of resources. Women in the Valley are more energized than ever to defend their human rights, and they are hitting the road this spring—to San Antonio, El Paso, Houston, Corpus Christi, and Austin—building a forward-thinking, inclusive, and rights-focused movement.