McALLEN — Unintended and unwanted pregnancies among Rio Grande Valley women could increase if the abortion bill currently before the Legislature becomes law, according to a University of Texas at Austin researcher.
Significant cuts to state funding for family planning during 2012 led to the closure of several clinics and reduced the availability of low-cost health services for Valley women, according to a brief released this month by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project under the UT Austin Population Research Center.
“What we have is like a perfect storm in the Valley,” said Amanda Stevenson, a graduate student researcher with the project. “A lot of this is happening because there’s just no access to any kind of birth control for many of the women.”
The two abortion clinics here — in McAllen and Harlingen — will no longer be able to perform the surgical procedure because they cannot meet Ambulatory Surgical Center, or ASC, standards required by the new law, the brief states.
The doctor of the Harlingen practice said his facility would close. The owner of the McAllen clinic said she wouldn’t be able to retrofit the small building and is considering other options.
An increase in self-induced abortions, which present their own dangers, is also estimated, said Stevenson.
Some 2,634 women in the Hidalgo, Starr, Cameron and Willacy counties had abortions in 2011, according to the policy brief.
If the bill becomes law, to obtain an abortion Valley women would have to travel more than 200 miles to San Antonio, the nearest facility that meets ASC standards. The proposed legislation also bans abortion after 20 weeks and requires that doctors monitor non-surgical abortions and have hospital admitting privileges at a facility within 30 miles. The 20-week ban includes an exception if the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, but it has no exception for pregnancies conceived in instances of rape or incest.
The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, which opposes abortion, said it does not run any health clinics or private adoption services, but is associated with the McAllen Pregnancy Center and has a Pregnancy Counseling Program offered through the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. The McAllen center offers services that include pregnancy tests and ultrasounds.
“That’s our hope,” diocese spokeswoman Brenda Nettles Riojas said when asked if it’s anticipated more women with unwanted pregnancies might choose adoption under the tighter abortion restrictions.
Representatives of the Gabriel Project, a private adoption facilitator that works in the largely Catholic Valley region, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
BY THE NUMBERS
In Hidalgo County, according to other Texas Policy Evaluation Project research, six family planning clinics closed from 2010 to 2012 as total state funding decreased by about $780,000. Researchers estimated the impact of the funding cuts meant fewer unintended pregnancies were averted in 2012 than in 2010.
Stevenson said there’s already a struggle in an area where research shows about 65 percent of women at reproductive age, or some 178,288 women, need subsidized contraceptive services.
“When you have to choose between birth control and food for your kids, you’re going to choose food for your kids. … And I’m not exaggerating,” she said. “These are the women who are the most vulnerable in Texas and they are going to bear the brunt of these laws — particularly in the Valley.”
ABORTION PROVIDERS SPEAK
Lester Minto, the doctor who runs the Reproductive Services of Harlingen clinic at 613 W. Sesame Dr., said it would cost too much to meet the law’s mandated surgical standards.
“We couldn’t keep the procedure affordable,” he said. “It’s all designed to shut us down. There’s nothing in the bill that decreases the need for abortions.”
Advocates of the legislation say the new standards mean improved medical care for women, but the Texas Policy Evaluation Project and critics say it is not medically necessary and would decrease access without improving patient safety.
The proposed law includes medical abortions, which do not require surgical tools and instead use medication.
A strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose, Minto called the law an insult to women’s intelligence and said he’d continue to perform abortions whether that means under the cover of a mesquite tree, on a shrimp boat or going to Mexico.
“I didn’t say I’d stop doing abortions,” he said of the proposal’s potential impact. “I’m not going to give this up. ... And I’m not going to abandon girls.”
Amy Hagstrom Miller, owner of the Whole Woman’s clinic in McAllen at 802 S. Main St., said she’s looking into whether an existing ASC might provide privileges for doctors to perform abortions here. She expects if the law passes it won’t go into effect until September 2014.
“I don’t have the funds for that kind of project. I’m grieving. I think we may be in a situation where we have to close,” Hagstrom Miller said. “I’m not going to break the law and I’m not going to be able to afford a $3 million building.”
Existing standards already burden women in requiring that they receive two visits from the same doctor in addition to waiting 24 hours, she said.
If the bill passes, Hagstrom Miller said her next step would be to try to secure an injunction and challenge parts of the law.
“They’re going to get the abortions they need. The question is: What are we willing to let women go through? That’s the reality we’re going to face,” she said.
Kristeena Banda, administrator of the McAllen clinic, said during a recent open house that the facility has already seen women trying to self-induce abortion by going to Mexico to buy medication. Meanwhile, she said clinic staff has also noticed a drug pipeline from the Valley north, much like the narcotics trade, as women try to obtain abortion medications.
“The irony of that is phenomenal,” Hagstrom Miller said of some women seeking abortion medication going from the U.S., where abortion is legal, to Mexico, where it is illegal.
Minto and Hagstrom Miller, whose facilities also offer other reproductive health services such as birth control, said the issue should be decided by voters through a referendum.
A testament to the heated division abortion often creates among the public, Minto said he carries a .45-caliber handgun everywhere he goes.
“I get more death threats than I do Christmas cards,” Minto said.