Deep in the Heart of Texas: Students Respond to Abortion Ban

On September 1, 2021, the Texas state legislature passed the most extreme abortion restriction of any state in the nation, criminalizing up to 85 percent of the state’s abortion procedures. Texas is home to over 29 million residents and is one of the top ten states from which Tufts admits incoming students. The news came as a shock to Tufts students, many of whom are affected directly or are fighting to protect abortion access nationwide. 

Texas bill SB 8, also known as the “heartbeat” bill, prohibits abortions after six weeks of gestation—when fetal cardiac activity can be detected on an ultrasound—which is often far before the pregnant person knows they’re pregnant. 

The bill does not provide exceptions for rape or incest, and allows individuals to sue anyone who provides—or “aids or abets”—an abortion after six weeks. Residents are incentivized to do so as plaintiffs stand to win $10,000 in court, in addition to reimbursement of all legal fees, putting clinics, physicians, and citizens in danger of lawsuits brought by fellow residents. 

“The desired consequence appears to be to insulate the State from responsibility,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent of Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, the case in which the Supreme Court declined to strike down the law for contradicting Roe v. Wade

Even though SB 8 unconstitutionally prohibits pre-viability abortions, the majority of justices ruled not to curb the law since it is not government-enforced. This sets a dangerous precedent for other states aiming to undermine previous Supreme Court rulings on reproductive rights.

“There needs to be an act stronger than Roe v. Wade that says there are absolutely no restrictions on abortions. I think the only reason that [Roe v. Wade] hasn’t been overturned by the Supreme Court is because it isn’t directly targeting the women who are receiving abortions. It’s targeting providers,” said sophomore Sabrina Rangwani, a Houston native and secretary of Tufts Students for NARAL, a pro-choice group on campus that works to defend reproductive rights both in Massachusetts and nationwide. 

The club is actively responding to restrictive abortion laws like Texas’ through local campaigns, and this year advocated for the passage of the Roe Act, which codified and expanded abortion access in Massachusetts.

Abortion care is significantly harder to access for low-income pregnant people who disproportionately suffer the consequences of this Texas legislation. Many may be unable to seek care in neighboring states due to work obligations, inaccessible child care, and a lack of transportation.

“People who don’t have the money for [ an abortion], they either have to go through with the pregnancy or find something else. And that’s terrifying,” said Gabriela Perez, a first-year from Houston, Texas. Growing up, Perez said the stigma surrounding abortion was ubiquitous, especially in her Catholic community.

“Outside of the churches, they always have a little tombstone for babies that are aborted, and so it was always a topic that was talked about. And obviously, it was stigmatized, and it’s seen as something you shouldn’t do,” Perez said. “I don’t feel completely safe in Texas as a woman, because it’s seen as women’s rights are just secondary.”

In Texas, Perez organized with non-profits like Mi Familia Vota, which encourages civic engagement and voter registration among Latinx communities. Coming to Tufts this fall, she said she looks forward to learning from activist groups on campus that could help her fuel change back in Houston for abortion rights.

“Here, everyone seems to already be aware of what’s going on and feel more empowered than to make a change,” Perez said. “But in Houston, this is my community. They have their concerns, but they don’t feel like they can make a change or they can voice out their concerns. And so that difference in empowerment can be a big difference.”

Rangwani said she feels supported by the Tufts community, something that is hard to find in Texas where legislation is so hostile against women and pregnant people.

“Especially as a woman of color in Texas, it feels especially devaluing, because, despite the fact that we make up a large percentage of the population and of the workforce in Texas, our voices still aren’t valued,” said Rangwani.

According to a national poll by Monmouth University, four-in-five Americans disapproved of the law’s $10,000 “bounty,” and 70 percent didn’t think that private citizens should be responsible for enforcing the rule to begin with—the component which raises the most constitutional debate.

“It just shows that our governor and our representatives do not represent us. There are people who are protesting outside of [Texas] Senator John Cornyn’s office every single Tuesday telling him how little he represents Texans,” Rangwani said of the unresponsive leadership in her state. 

Rangwani fears that clinic closures pose the largest threat under SB 8 and believes that going forward, abortion procedures should be taught to all Obstetricians-Gynecologists as mandatory services. Although President Biden’s Department of Justice has appealed to federal judges to block the law, the damage is already apparent. 

Major abortion providers, such as Planned Parenthood, have stopped scheduling appointments past six weeks. The severe restriction of services can and likely will result in permanent clinic closures. According to a study on abortion availability in 2017, Texas already had ten abortion deserts “from which people would have to travel over 100 miles (160 km) to reach an abortion facility”—more than any other state.

Even without SB 8 going into effect, obtaining an abortion in Texas was already far from easy. State policy poses several inhibitory hoops to jump through prior to an abortion, such as a 24-hour waiting period and two trips to the same provider at a clinic.

“From a gender and public policy perspective, this is one of the ways that women and people who can become pregnant are viewed as less than or as primarily existing in order to incubate fetuses,” said gender and public policy scholar Dr. Kaitlin Kelly-Thompson. “We devalue both women and children. We really, really value children while they’re a fetus, and we don’t value living and breathing children who need free school lunch and a safe place to live.”

According to the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, 13.2 million (nearly one-in-five) children statewide were below the poverty line in 2016, and 70 percent of those children were children of color. The Texas foster care system was responsible for more than 15,000 children as of April, and Child Protective Services workers there handle an average of 24 cases, rather than the recommended 14 to 17 each. 

Given the potentially grave consequences of forced pregnancies for both pregnant people and children, 59 percent of US adults think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a statistic that goes up to 62 percent among women. Kelly-Thompson explained why the Supreme Court’s ruling may not be reflective of this national sentiment.

“The courts are a really important part of the policymaking process in the United States, but the courts are usually behind,” Kelly-Thompson said. “There are some conservative women who are going to feel very represented by this, who are going to be very happy with this. And then there’s some women and people who can become pregnant who are feeling like they don’t matter to their legislators.”

Perez agreed that some parts of her home state present a stark contrast to political views in Massachusetts and the Northeast. Coming to Tufts this year, she recognized a discrepancy in the security of residents’ reproductive rights.

“[In Texas] we’re still arguing about if we should even consider pronouns. That kind of mindset is so behind. And so I guess it doesn’t surprise me that much, that the abortion battles happened,” Perez said. “It just kind of puts everything in perspective, that [the] Texas [government] is just very behind in their beliefs and values.”

As lawsuits make their way through the courts both in defense and in condemnation of abortion providers, the future of SB 8—and, by extension, Roe v. Wade—remains unclear. For college-age students, legislation this extreme can be a source of fear or cynicism, but activists say maintaining hope will be crucial to resisting encroachments on reproductive rights going forward.

“I didn’t think that something that extreme would ever pass. It didn’t seem constitutional,” said Rangwani. “[But] if people just ignore it, then nothing’s going to change.”