At times, last night's Stand for Women's Health event felt more like a reunion than a paneled discussion, complete with poopgate jokes and reminiscing about the night of the filibuster.
And for many of us, it was a reunion: The last time we saw NARAL TX Executive Director Heather Busby, Rep. Jessica Farrar, and activist Jessica Luther together with women's health activists, it was under the pink dome.
The Texas Observer and the Feminist Policy Alliance brought the three women's health leaders to the UT campus to discuss what's next for HB 2, the omnibus abortion bill passed this summer.
The conversation focused on the upcoming court case to challenge HB 2, reaching out to women that the law hurts most, and creating a more cohesive information network for women's health.
Read more about the Stand for Women's Health event after the jump.Dave Mann, the Texas Observer executive editor, kicked off the night with a recap of the summer special sessions and the protests. After reminding the audience that the first special session had been about redistricting, not abortion, he said, “Abortion bills during the regular session had gone nowhere.”
But as soon as abortion bills were filed and sent to committee, it became clear that the Texas Legislature wasn't in the kumbaya session anymore. The first special session ended when the crowd in the gallery literally screamed them the bill off the floor.
Mann's first question for the three panelists was about the impact of the abortion legislation. How would Texas women and families feel the fallout from this bill?
Heather Busby of NARAL TX spoke first: “We will lose clinics and access, which is already not great in this state and is going to get much worse. The effect is going to be felt by the women seeking abortions.”
She referenced Lilith Fund, the Texas-based organization that funds abortion for young people and people with low income in central to south Texas. In 2012, Lilith fund received over 3,300 requests and had the funds to help less than half of those women.
“The demand on the hotline was already increasing. We expect those numbers to keep shooting up,” Busby said. “In addition to the cost of the abortion, women are traveling on average 43 miles, sometimes up to 400 miles, to access a clinic.”
Rep. Jessica Farrar and Jessica Luther added that reproductive health, not just abortion services, were restricted by this bill. “The clinics that are going to be shut down are not only providing abortions,” Luther reminded the audience.
The discussion then turned to the ambulatory surgical center provision of the bill, which requires clinics to adhere to pages of regulations even if they only offer the abortion pill.
“September 1, 2014 does not give anyone enough time to build or retrofit a clinic,” said Busby. “By the time you raise the money, get the architect, find a builder — it's just not enough time.”
Amy Hagstrom-Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman's Health and an audience member, chimed in to discuss the 2004 Texas law that required that abortions after 16 weeks be performed in ambulatory surgical centers. “It was 2 and a half years before anyone in the state could build or retrofit an ambulatory surgical center,” she said. “Today, there's still only five.”
The conversation soon turned to the Texas' future and what women can do to keep fighting back against the bill and to prepare for the 2015 legislative session.
“Next time we have a legislative session, we'll have groups of folks around the state, trained, educated, and engaged, ready to go to their district offices, writing letters, out there in the communities doing work,” Busby said.
“And hopefully in the new legislative session, we'll have some new legislators,” Farrar added. “I've never seen the Capitol so full of people that they had to close the doors because they had surpassed the occupancy levels. The people surprised me, and I think the people will continue to surprise everyone. I think the only people not cognizant of this is the Republican party.”
“I don't think the GOP understands for real what has changed in this state,” said Luther.
Changes are coming in the courts, too. Rep. Farrar told the audience that “a lawsuit is in the works” to fight back against the abortion restrictions.
Amy Hagstrom-Miller confirmed that Whole Woman's Health would be a plaintiff in the lawsuit against HB 2, which could be filed as early as the end of September.
“What we're facing here is complicated,” she said. The plaintiffs may be seeking an extension for some provisions of the bill and roll back others, like the RU-486 regimen provision.
For community outreach, both the panelists and audience members agreed that rural women, women of low income, and women of color face the most difficult challenges, both in getting to a women's health clinic and having their voices heard at the Capitol.
Luther spoke of the need for women's health advocacy to be inclusive. “We need to have more voices,” she said. “When we start to make a conscious effort to meet those people where they are, the frame is going to get so much larger.”
Audience members also expressed concern for building connections and sharing information, and some mentioned the possibilities of think tanks, clearinghouses, and online communities. Luther mentioned the Feminist Justice League, a grassroots organization dedicated to unite Texas feminist activists that was formed during the protests.
The excitement from both the panelists and audience members was palpable: Texas women and their allies rarely have the opportunity to discuss how to utilize a huge influx of energy, rather than how to generate it.
In the words of Luther, the event was a reminder that “we are here, and we are angry, and we are not going away.“