Come and Take It: The Fight Against HB2
by Hannah Smothers
All good militaries have a uniform. For pro-choice activists in Texas fighting House Bill 2, that uniform is an orange T-shirt. They’re all screen-printed with different phrases: “Stand with Texas women,” “My family values women,” and a refurbished state motto, “Come and take it!” printed next to an image of a uterus and two ovaries. Just as a soldier sleeps with a pair of combat boots at the end of the bed, the shirts and protest signs toted by the army of pro-choice Texan activists are always within reach — — ready for another battle at moment’s notice.
Before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision on Thursday, activists around the state had a feeling there would be more fighting ahead. That’s why they were ready, uniforms in hand, for a last minute rally organized on Facebook the same night all but seven abortion clinics in Texas closed their doors. This is how most of the rallies around the state have been organized, an indication of the grassroots nature of the movement. The soldiers in this army are not paid, they are never granted furlough, and they were not drafted. These women protest by choice, fighting a piece of legislation that keeps getting stronger.
Early in September, a district court judge in Austin declared two provisions of HB2, Texas’ strict abortion bill, unconstitutional. These provisions include one that requires all abortion facilities in the state to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital with an OB-GYN department, and another requiring all facilities meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. These two provisions effectively closed over half of the clinics in Texas — — leaving large swaths of the state completely without access. The distant, isolated regions of West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley were especially harmed.
The Austin judge’s decision allowed a clinic in McAllen, Texas — — the biggest city in the Rio Grande Valley — — to reopen and serve the women who live in one of the country’s lowest income areas. The clinic stayed open late most nights to see as many women as they could because they knew their time was probably limited. Unable to secure admitting privileges, the Fifth Circuit Court’s decision could shut down the McAllen clinic, and over ten more clinics around the state, at anytime.
For a few weeks in September, there was renewed hope for Texas women. Anti-choice advocates have been fighting for years to limit abortion access and in Texas, a red state in the Bible Belt, they almost always win. The declaration of HB2’s harshest provisions as unconstitutional was a rare but powerful victory for the pro-choice movement. But everyone knew it probably wouldn’t last.
The Fifth Circuit Court’s decision — -that HB2 was not unconstitutional, and the provisions didn’t put an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion — — went into effect immediately on October 3. Only seven of the 20 remaining clinics opened their doors October 3, but a group of orange-shirted activists met on the steps of the Texas Capitol to defend the clinics and the women of Texas who need them.
The fight against HB2 has two branches. “The first strategy is a systemic attack, meaning you attack the systems that are keeping something like this in place,” says Lenzi Sheible, a pro-choice activist and founder of Fund Texas Choice. “The second strategy is putting out fires, providing direct services, which in itself doesn’t challenge the system at all.” Lenzi’s organization, Fund Texas Choice, operates in the second strategy. It provides travel funds to women who now have to drive or take a bus upwards of 500 miles to the nearest abortion facility. Sometimes the closest clinic is in San Antonio. Other times, the closest clinic is out of the state — — in New Mexico — — where abortion restrictions are much more lenient.
Organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice Texas make up the other arm in the fight. NARAL combats HB2 by lobbying the Texas legislature, organizing activists and educating Texans about the political process. Now that the Fifth Circuit Court decided to uphold HB2, NARAL is working to slowly and systemically chip away at the far-right majority in the Texas legislature. “We have a majority of not just Republicans in the legislature, but a lot very far-right Republicans,” says Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Texas. “We have to at least get back to the middle.”
Monday is the deadline for Texans to register to vote for the next general state election in November. Texas has the lowest voter turnout of any state, with less than 30% of the voting age population showing up at the polls. “Voting matters at every single level, it’s the single most important thing you can do,” Heather says. She attributes the low voter turnout as the reason why Texans have “the worst education, the worst healthcare and the worst access to reproductive health care” in the country.
Getting rid of HB2 isn’t going to happen overnight. “It took the [anti-choicers] decades to pass this legislation, now it’s going to take us many legislative sessions to undo it,” Heather says. Included on the ballot in November is the vote for Texas’ next governor. Even if the Democratic candidate, Wendy Davis — who fought the bill from the very beginning — were to win, there’s not much she could do to really affect HB2. The power to overthrow bills, to change the law, in the Texas legislature. Some political science experts say the next real shot Texas has at combating the bill will be after the state redistricts in 2021.
As of Monday night, a group of Texas abortion providers started working on an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Potentially, a Supreme Court decision could reverse HB2 and allow Texas clinics to reopen. But like Heather says, “as we saw in Hobby Lobby, this is not a friendly court” when it comes to reproductive health issues.
While West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley bear the biggest brunt of HB2’s strict provisions, the entire state is burdened by the bill. Even with Planned Parenthood opening another clinic in San Antonio to make eight providers in the state, all of the facilities are located in Texas’ biggest cities — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. “As of Friday, Planned Parenthood in Austin had 70 people that had their appointments rescheduled from a different location,” Heather says. With a full staff, most average-sized abortion clinics can maybe see 20–25 women per day, without staying all night. “70 appointments in one day is just not possible.”
Over a year after HB2 was introduced to the Texas legislature, over a year after Wendy Davis tried her hardest to kill the bill she knew would hurt a large majority of her home state, it feels like a fight that’s been raging for months is only beginning. Both branches of the intersectional battle against HB2 — the aid providers and the political lobbyists — were represented at the rally on Friday. Their speeches might be long-rehearsed, the screen-printed slogans on their orange T-shirts might be cracking, and there might even be a hint desperation that hangs in the air, but the grassroots, pro-choice army is prepared to keep trudging on. They are bedraggled, they are tired, and they are determined.
“Come and take it,” their uniforms dare, and the Texas legislature seems determined to do just that.
Hannah Smothers is a writer in Austin, Texas. She was previously homecoming princesss at Kingwood Park High School in 2008.