Earlier this month, the Texas Freedom Network hosted a series of forums titled “Lies into Laws.” The events took place all across the state, including two forums in Brownsville and Edinburg. The organizers hoped to recap the 2017 Texas legislative session, by highlighting major policies introduced throughout the session and shedding light on how some legislatures ignore facts, reason, and science, to manipulate the public and promote an anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, and anti-reproductive rights agenda.
I attended the event in Edinburg, hosted at an auditorium in the UTRGV Education Complex. Considering it was scheduled near the Thanksgiving break, with deadlines and major exams looming, I was surprised to see a sizeable crowd of young, mostly college student attendees. The crowd visited tables set up outside the auditorium, and engaged with student organizations like United for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), Texas Rising, and La Union de Chicanxs Hijxs de Aztlan (LUCHA), while they waited for the forum to begin. Eventually, the crowd made their way inside, nearly filling the large room.
Aileen Garza, a campus organizer for Texas Rising, welcomed the audience and quickly got things rolling when she declared the 2017 Texas legislative session was “one of the worst yet.” She cited a list of proposed measures that marginalized minorities or undermined reproductive rights, before introducing the panelist, which included Sadie Hernandez from Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, Sissi Yado from the Human Rights Campaign, and UTRGV Criminal Justice professor, Dr. Rosalva Resendiz.
“A majority of anti-abortion laws are based on lies,” Hernandez said, before informing the audience that twenty-one anti-abortion laws have been passed by the Texas Legislature since 2011. She went on to give information about several bills proposed during the recent session, explaining how they would undermine access to abortion and reproductive rights and emphasizing how they would potentially harm communities like the Rio Grande Valley the most.
One of the bills Hernandez spoke about was House Bill 214, which restricts Texas insurers from covering “non-emergency” abortion care, with no exceptions for instances of fetal abnormalities, incest, or rape. The bill would force consumers instead to purchase a separate insurance policy specifically to cover abortion care. This measure would undermine the constitutional right to have an abortion by introducing a costly and unnecessary obstacle, Hernandez explained, and would also make it disproportionately more difficult for low-income people, who are much less likely to have health insurance coverage, to access abortion care.
Governor Abbott, unable to pass House Bill 214 during the regular session, called Texas legislatures into a special session to force this bill, among others. The bill’s Republican author, with heavy-handed support from the governor, claimed this was a necessary measure to provide “economic freedom” and ensure people with religious or philosophical objections to abortion would not have to subsidize the procedure through their insurance premiums. Meanwhile, opponents argued insurance companies already limit coverage for the procedure to only “medically necessary” abortions, making this bill quite unnecessary, and only introducing an undue burden to accessing abortion care.
Governor Abbott signed the bill into law on August 15, 2017.
This isn’t a new strategy for conservative legislators in Texas, who have spent years gaming the legislative system to pass policies that limit access to abortion care and other critical reproductive health care programs. The state has spent years, not to mention tons of resources, defending far-reaching policies like House Bill 214 in the courts, and conservative legislatures seem unfazed, even when their policies are overturned.
Just last year, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Helllerstedt, the Supreme Court overturned an anti-abortion law passed by the Texas legislature in 2013 that forced many abortion providers to shut down their clinics. The court deemed the law unconstitutional, but not before the damage was done. It took years of strenuous advocacy and legal battles, but even after the law was overturned, many clinics remained closed.
If this were not bad enough, Hernandez informed, conservative legislatures are also grossly misappropriating resources to support anti-abortion facilities known as the so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs). These centers offer no medical services but mask themselves as legitimate clinics to coerce people away from seeking abortion care. This year, the legislature proposed to provide $38-million to support CPCs, while cutting funding for HIV prevention, welfare, and indigent care programs.
Hernandez spoke passionately about how some legislatures spread a false narrative about reproductive health providers, such as Planned Parenthood, in order to justify exempting them from state funding.
One example she gave is how legislators and anti-abortion activists have recently vilified Planned Parenthood by alluding to a video that surfaced last year, which claimed to expose Planned Parenthood for being involved with illegal practices regarding their handling of fetal tissue remains. The video has since been debunked, it’s producers tied to violent anti-abortion groups, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anti-choice legislators, who continue to use that narrative as justification to give money to fake clinics, instead of supporting programs and clinics that offer actual medical care.
Not surprisingly, the Texas legislature also passed a “fetal tissue remains” bill, Senate Bill 8, despite a similar measure being shut down by the courts in 2016. The bill is modeled after legislative proposals written by anti-choice groups, like the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life. It includes provisions to ban medical providers from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, outlaws “partial-birth abortions,” which are already illegal under federal law, and forces healthcare facilities to bury or cremate any fetal remains, regardless if they’re from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth.
Senate Bill 8 also includes provisions to ban dilation and evacuation abortions, a common procedure medical professionals say is among the safest ways to perform an abortion. Because dilation and evacuation abortions are essentially the medical standards, banning this procedure is effectively an abortion ban.
These measures are bizarre, not to mention medically unnecessary, but they demonstrate the Texas legislature’s willingness to recklessly legislate smoke and mirror solutions to problems that don’t exist. They’ve proven they are willing to fight the long battle even if they have a bit of a loss. They are willing to pass senseless legislation that doesn’t hold up to the law, so long as they can whittle away at reproductive rights.
These are shameless tactics, but they’ve proven effective, and there appears to be no limit to the Texas legislature’s maleficence.
“There were more than thirty anti-LGBT bills introduced this year,” said Sissi Yado, a Texas Field Organizer for the Human Rights Campaign.
Yado spoke about how legislatures are also attempting to pass discriminatory bills, masking them under the umbrella of religious freedom, when they are actually just anti-LGBT in nature.
One such bill, House Bill 3859, is a broad piece of legislation that allows child care providers to discriminate, based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Under this law, a child care provider, like someone working with an adoption or foster agency, who opposes same-sex marriage because of their religion, could legally discriminate against an LGBT couple. If that were not enough, this bill would also grant providers all sorts of questionable privileges, such as the ability to place a child in a religious school, to deny children certain medical care (access to contraceptives and abortion named explicitly), and to refuse to contract with other organizations that don’t share their religious beliefs, even those who could provide necessary services to a child in need.
House Bill 3859 is following a familiar path. Governor Abbott signed the bill into law this summer, and opponents are already working to challenge its discriminatory provisions in the courts.
Conservative legislatures also hoped to pass Senate Bill 6, a bill dubbed the “bathroom bill,” because it sought to mandate the use of public bathroom facilities based on “biological sex,” a term used to other and invalidate transgender people. Besides using discriminatory language, the bill was based on and perpetuated inflammatory and inaccurate narratives about the transgender community. Supporters of the bill argued the law was needed to protect women and girls from predators, with heavy implications that those predators would be transgender women. Those claims, however, simply have no basis in fact.
Yado explained that statistically, transgender women were much more likely to be victims of violence and sexual assault, than assaulters. Transgender women of color especially are at risk of violence, facing very grim statistics. One in eight transgender women of color is murdered, and the average life expectancy for a transgender woman of color is only thirty-five years old. Under this light, Senate Bill 6 is even more heinous, because it reinforces the false notion that transgender people are a violent threat, which suggests preemptive violence against transgender people is okay as “self-defense.”
Resendiz added that it was common to see this type of othering to promote discriminatory or heavy-handed government measures. She drew parallels between the narratives that paint the transgender community as violent and threatening, to those used by politicians, like Donald Trump, to villainize immigrants. She also talked about how these narratives shape our society’s institutions, speaking for a moment about contemporary police practices.
“Contemporary theories on criminology are rooted in racism,” she said, before explaining how the narratives about immigrants, people of color, and queer people, often lead to them being targeted by law enforcement. It was a fitting connection to make; Senate Bill 6 would criminalize transgender people, after all.
Fortunately, opponents were able to defeat Senate Bill 6. Yado shared a moving story about how a large coalition from across the state came together in opposition to the bill. They spoke about the countless phone calls they made to legislators and supporters, and about mornings turning into nights as families waited long hours for the opportunity to testify against the bill. Their efforts proved worthwhile.
Yado emphasized the importance of sharing personal stories to challenge the narratives that drive the radical right’s policies. They also urged the audience to vote if they are eligible and to encourage everyone they know to vote as well.
Hernandez echoed the notion, telling the young audience, “In 2018, millennials will be the largest eligible voting generation.” She reminded the audience that Texas typically has a low voter turnout and that it is possible to transform the political landscape through the electoral process.
A member of the audience asked what else they could do besides voting.
“Get involved,” said Yado. “Join URGE, join Texas Rising, find the people and groups who are organizing in the RGV.”
The 2017 Texas legislative session, like many before it, leaves us with a long future of contentious legal and political battles ahead. While conservative legislators have proved willing to fight a long, dirty fight, one thing is clear: young activists like Sadie Hernandez are ready to fight back, and they are in it for the long haul, too.
Note: Sadie Hernandez is part of the talent video team at Neta.