Texas abortion law disproportionately affects women of color, patient advocates say

The clock was ticking, and the staff working inside the Whole Woman's Health abortion clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, knew it.

It was Aug. 31. The next day, Sept. 1, a Texas law almost completely banning abortions was going into effect.

The clinic's lobby and parking lot were teeming with patients on the last day of August. Once the clock struck midnight, the staff would no longer be able to help most of the women seeking abortions. They started at 7:30 a.m., and for 16 hours and 26 minutes, they worked nonstop to help 67 patients get the abortions they sought, said Marva Sadler, the director of clinical services for Whole Woman's Health in Texas. They completed the last procedure at 11:56 p.m.

"It was organized chaos at its best," Sadler said. "There was no time to stop and eat. There was no time to stop and think."

Texas' Senate Bill 8 bans abortions at the first "detectable heartbeat," or around six weeks of pregnancy – a time when most people don't know they are pregnant. Just before midnight on Sept. 1, the Supreme Court refused to block the bill, setting the stage for lawsuits nationwide on the most significant challenge to Roe v. Wade in a generation.

The fallout from the nation's most restrictive anti-abortion law was wide-reaching, culminating with the Department of Justice filing a lawsuit against Texas to block its new law. While the law applies to all pregnant Texans, abortion opponents say people of color will feel the brunt of this new legislation.

"We know that the harm this ban is causing is being felt most acutely by communities of color with few resources and young people because of centuries of structural racism," said Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the America Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project. "The harm will be felt ... by the same communities that our legal and political systems have failed so many times before."

According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Black women have the highest abortion rate at 27.1 per 1,000 women, compared with 18.1 per 1,000 for Hispanic women and 10 per 1,000 for white women.

"These women don't have a lot of options," Sadler said. "If you are the lucky woman of Texas, you'll figure out how to go to New Mexico or Colorado or Louisiana or Oklahoma, but if you are the majority of women, you will be a parent in nine months."

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Today, the average Texan has to travel an estimated 250 miles out of state to get an abortion, Kaye said. That shifts a heavy economic burden onto women of color, who might be less likely to have extra finances to travel out of state for medical care. Expenses could include paying for transportation and a hotel room. Women might also need to take time off work, which for those in low-wage jobs might mean forgoing a paycheck or risking job loss.

"For many people, these barriers will be insurmountable, and they will be forced to take on the serious pains and risks of pregnancy against their will," Kaye said.

In Texas, the poverty rate among African-Americans and Hispanics is roughly 19%, far outpacing the poverty rate of 8% for the white, non-Hispanic population, according to the Census Bureau.

Nancy Cardenas Pena, the Texas director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, said Senate Bill 8 is only the latest in what has been "a long string of attacks that have continuously eroded the reproductive healthcare safety net."

Cardenas Pena said Texas lawmakers passed a bill in 2013 that left a trail of shuttered clinics "in areas that really needed it the most, especially among communities of color."

Many reproduction advocates are troubled by how this decision contradicts Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 landmark decision that permitted women to get an abortion. Not only is this law the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country, but it also allows private citizens to sue anyone who performs or helps someone get an abortion.

"It could be driving someone to a clinic; it could be giving money to an abortion fund, or it could be working for an abortion fund," Cardenas Pena said.

"It basically grants people the right to act as bounty hunters against people who are trying to access abortion care."

The day Whole Woman's Health in Fort Worth assisted with 67 abortions, Sadler was proud of her staff.

"At the end of the night, we felt a victory that we were able to see every woman that walked into the door that day and to get her procedure done," she said.

But her feeling of triumph quickly faded.

"That moment of victory was quickly replaced by the fact that the next morning we were going to have to do the exact opposite of that and to come in and turn the majority of people who needed our help away," Sadler said.

Since Sept. 1, Sadler said the clinic has turned away more than 70 women seeking abortions.

"This law is causing a lot of sorrow and grief, and it's continuing to this day," Sadler said. "I've seen it all. I've had a woman fall on her knees and beg us to do anything that we possibly could."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Activists: Texas abortion law has dire consequences for women of color