POLITICS AUGUST 30, 2011
In late May, Texas Governor Rick Perry made a proud speech to celebrate his signing of a new state law that requires women to get a sonogram before having an abortion. Flanked on both sides by gray-haired men in cowboy hats, Perry’s underscored just how little he thought of a woman’s right to choose: “Only when someone has access to all the facts, has a deep understanding of what’s at stake, can you make the right decision, and like many in the room today, I believe the right choice is life,” he declared.
But the fervor of the governor’s pro-life stance was expressed most succinctly not in his public remarks after the law’s passage, but in the extraordinary legislative maneuvering he used to enact it: By declaring passage of the law an “emergency”, Perry pushed it ahead of other pieces of legislation scheduled to be discussed by the Texas House of Representatives, and forced debates over real emergencies—like the jobs crisis, the state budget deficit, and out of control wild fires—to wait.
Against the backdrop of three wars and economic turmoil, it may seem quaint to focus on a presidential candidate’s stances on abortion. But Perry’s record on the issue is not just fodder for another round of battles in America’s culture war—it’s a genuinely troubling indication of his skewed priorities and distorted judgment. If his mission has been to restrict access to abortions in Texas, Perry has wildly overshot the mark, presiding over an aggressive unraveling of women’s access to basic health care. But those regressive effects actually seem to be a feature, not a bug, of the governor’s policies.
FEALTY TO THE pro-life lobby is practically a pre-requisite for Republicans running for office in Texas, but it’s Perry’s personalized commitment to the abortion issue that most troubles the state’s pro-choice advocates. One professional pro-choice advocate in Texas says, “What is terrifying about Rick Perry to us is he will work the abortion issue to his political advantage, but he also cares.” While other Republican candidates are certainly anti-choice, she insists that Rick Perry would be among the worst. “Since he has made this a personal priority for so long,” she continues, “I think he would be a great threat as an anti-choice advocate, a zealot even.”
Texan anti-abortion groups seem to agree with that assessment. They have been ardent supporters of Perry ever since 1999, when they vetted him during his run for lieutenant governor. Elizabeth Graham, the director of Texas Right to Life, says proudly of the governor, “There’s not much flipping and flopping.” The warm feelings are apparently mutual: Graham says she cannot remember a time when Perry declined to speak at an anti-choice event in Texas. He has also donated a tour of the governor’s mansion to another anti-abortion group, the Texas Alliance for Life, in 2005, and provided a recorded message for them to play at their last two annual fundraising benefits.
It was at the yearly anti-choice rally organized in January by the Texas Alliance for Life, which drew an estimated 3,000 people, that Perry announced his intention to make the sonogram bill an emergency measure. “In my estimation, the sanctity of human life is very dear to his heart,” says Joe Pojman, the executive director of Texas Alliance for Life. (George W. Bush, by contrast, never spoke at one of the rallies, though Pojman was quick to remind me that the former president and governor was also a true friend of the pro-life cause.)
Perry has made good not just with rhetoric, but with policy. Since becoming governor in 2000, Perry has not hesitated to push multiple anti-choice bills through an eager state legislature, making the record of his predecessor, George Bush, pale in comparison. One law signed by Perry required parental consent for abortions performed on minors unless they get a judicial waiver as victims of rape or incest; another requires counseling followed by a 24 hour waiting period in order to get an abortion; most recent was the onerous “emergency” law requiring a sonogram.
As anti-choice legislation goes, this latest law is particularly unusual. Oklahoma is the only other state with a similar law and it is currently facing a legal challenge in district court. The Texas sonogram law, which is also being challenged in court(a verdict is expected by Thursday, when the law is to take effect), is both disturbingly detailed and frustratingly vague. The law places an extraordinary logistical burden on women seeking abortions. After travelling—sometimes very long distances—to get a sonogram, a woman must now wait a full 24 hours before returning to the same clinic to get the abortion. (The waiting period for women who live more than 100 miles away is reduced to two hours). This will mean that many women seeking an abortion will have to take two days off of work or to find two days of childcare. Sarah Wheat, the interim chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region says the arbitrary time constraints don’t make women healthier or safer. “It is just a way of the government letting Texas women know what they think of their decisions,” she says.
But in addition to the complicated logistics, the law amounts to an absurdly invasive form of government intervention—one that adds physical discomfort and shame to the abortion process and dictates the manner with which a physician must perform a procedure and communicate with his patient. The doctor is forced to make an audible heartbeat available to the woman and provide a detailed verbal description of the fetus pictured in a sonogram. Theoretically, women are required to listen to the speech but can decline to hear the heartbeat and see the sonogram image.
Practically speaking, however, this is easier said than done, says Dr. Scott Spear, the medical director at Planned Parenthood. The law stipulates that the doctor is required to present the image and heart beat to her, which basically means that she would have to cover her eyes and plug her ears in order to shield herself from the material. “We are still debating among ourselves exactly what it means,” he says. “If I’m required to provide it, how does she choose not to hear it?” Despite the ambiguity, the consequences are strict: Doctors who don’t comply with the law face the prospect of losing their license to practice medicine.
To make matters worse, sonograms in the first trimester, when nearly 90 percent of abortions are performed, are usually done with a probe inserted into the vagina, an uncomfortable procedure that is not medically safe for the fetus in the early weeks, and which is usually not made available to a pregnant mother until the second trimester. Spear says that doctors may also have to extend the durations of these procedures longer than would otherwise be necessary in order to comply with the law’s demand that an audible heart beat be produced every time. “You have to have this conversation while [this probe] is in your vagina, its not like we can have pleasantries,” he told me. “You have to have a scripted conversation provided by politicians where you have to put your hands over your ears. That is not how we practice medicine. We try to make sonograms comfortable when it is required for a medical procedure, so this really has the effect of harassment.”
That Perry would make such a law a top legislative priority—one that mandates an invasive procedure against standard medical advice—is chilling. But equally disturbing is Perry’s support over the last several years for the decimation of women’s access to essential health services like cancer and STD screenings and birth control. In 2011, Perry presided over a two-thirds reduction in funding totaling about 62 million to family planning health clinics across the state that provide gynecological exams, STD tests, and birth control prescriptions, regardless of whether or not they provide abortions.
More than $60 million worth of the cuts to family planning services over the next two years came about because the Texas legislature redirected federal dollars toward other health care needs. Family planning’s funds were cut at the same time that Texas added money to an $8.3 million fund devoted to alternatives to abortion, a good portion of which goes to crisis pregnancy centers that counsel women not to have abortions but do not provide any medical services besides sonograms and pregnancy tests. In other words, these were budget choices made on the basis not of unavoidable austerity, but ideology.
The consequences of the de-funding is the shuttering of health clinics, some of which have already closed, says Fran Hagerty, head of the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas which provides support to many of the independent clinics. Hagerty says the cuts will lead to a public health crisis in Texas. “It means that women with cancer are going to be caught later and outcomes are not going to be as favorable,” she argues. “It’s going to mean that STD’s go untreated and spread, and the most ironic thing of all, that just makes me sick, is it means a rise of abortion.” Recent precedents aren’t encouraging: After a smaller round of family planning cuts in 2005, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin had to cut down its services one day a week, leading to 5,000 fewer cervical cancer screenings that year, according to Wheat.
The budget cuts are likely, in fact, to cost the state money. The Legislative Budget Board, a committee in the legislature that performs fiscal analysis of proposed legislation, estimated that 283, 909 low-income women will be denied family planning services in 2012-2013 as a result of the cuts, leading to about 20,511 additional births, at an average cost to Medicaid of $11,268 each, costing $231,117,948 for the births alone, irrespective of what the children will cost the state over time. A pap smear and birth control, by contrast, costs less than $200.
In our present atmosphere of federal austerity, decisions made in Washington are apt to have a great impact on women’s health issues in the years ahead. John Boehner’s proposal to cut funding to Planned Parenthood in April—an effort to which President Obama refused to capitulate—is just one example of how the federal government is considering ways to balance the budget at women’s expense. There is no way to know how Perry’s personal and political crusade against women’s reproductive health will manifest itself on a national stage if he is elected president, but it’s safe to say that most women would prefer not to find out.
Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New Republic.