During her first campaign for a Southeast Austin City Council district, Delia Garza knew she faced challenges. “It is 70% Hispanic and families live on half the income of the rest of the city,” says Garza, who is now deputy mayor. “I am committed to improving the quality of life here. “
She also learned that her district has the highest percentage of teenage pregnancies in the district. Improving the quality of life meant integrating public health initiatives into its agenda.
As the council intensifies discussions this summer before finalizing its 2020 budget, representatives from three organizations approached it, along with other council members, with another idea: funding access to abortion.
The three groups –– NARAL Pro Choice Texas, one of the state’s largest reproductive health advocacy organizations, the Lilith Fund and the Texas Choice Fund, which fund the incidental expenses of women seeking abortions –– have requested part of the city’s $ 4.2 billion budget for funding logistical access to abortions.
Garza was on board.
Council members were already discussing ways to respond to recent state bans on abortion after 8 weeks. In the past, council members have boycotted city-funded travel to these states, she worried about its impact on the tourism industry, which employs working families.
This response corresponds to its values –– and to its campaign promises.
“Solving a problem like access to abortion is part of what I have supported in the past – addressing health equity issues proactively,” she says.
If approved on Tuesday, $ 150,000 of the $ 4.2 billion budget will go to the city’s public health department to fund expenses such as travel, child care and accommodation for Austinites. seeking an abortion.
“Texas has been at the forefront of the fight for abortion rights. The state does not allow private insurance to fund the proceedings, ”says Delma Limones, communications manager for NARAL Texas, and the Federal Hyde Amendment bans federal funding for abortion. That means a patient could pay anywhere from $ 400 to $ 850 out of pocket, according to Jane’s Due Process, a legal nonprofit organization. After Bill 2 came into effect – the massive bill restricting abortions that catapulted former State Senator Wendy Davis for her obstruction – came into effect in 2013, Access to the abortion has become even more crucial statewide.
The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks, with the exception of a very narrow exemption if a woman’s health is at risk, requires the patient to have an ultrasound and wait 24 hours before having the procedure.
That means taking time off work, finding daycare, and paying for travel. While some Austin clinics still offer abortions, many women travel hundreds of miles, and even out of state, to get the procedure done.
“With the new restrictions, the need has increased, as has the number of funds,” Limones said. “With this funding, the city is providing practical support by removing the barriers currently in place. “
If approved, Austin will be the first city in Texas to provide financial assistance for abortion logistics, and the second in the country. Earlier this summer, New York City allocated $ 250,000 to help women in and around the state get abortion care.
At the federal level, the Hyde Amendment prohibits any federal money from going to abortion.
New York State law allows cities to use state and local funds to cover the procedure. Texas, however, does not. In fact, a new state law prohibits municipal contracts with abortion providers. The law, SB 22, drafted by Senator Donna Campbell, a Republican, specifically targeted Austin’s $ 1 lease to a Planned Parenthood clinic – which does not perform abortion. The city extended Planned Parenthood’s lease to 2039 before SB 22 came into effect.
“While we may see this as a reaction to Senate Bill 22, we see it as a proactive step,” Garza said.
“Proactive” is a term reproductive health advocates use to describe their momentum at the national and local level. Advocates like Jenny Mistry, associate director of local advocacy at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. The New York nonprofit works with states and cities to promote reproductive rights. His organization works with officials and organizations like the Local Progress Network of elected municipal officials on progressive municipal policies.
The common misconception even among those who support reproductive rights is that cities do not have a role in the debate. Cities still have plenty of opportunities to put state and federal government on defense; they just took longer.
“Reproductive rights are a local issue. Cities have an important role to play in promoting reproductive rights and justice. We need to make it clear to local authorities what we can do, ”says Mistry.
“People don’t think about local public funding. It just doesn’t occur to me. City dwellers may know of a federal barrier, but they don’t know the local opportunities. “
Megan Green, who sits on the Local Progress board with Garza, thinks a lot about these opportunities.
She successfully added wording to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance preventing employers and landlords from discriminating against a woman for having aborted or using contraceptives, or for making any decisions about reproductive health.
It was so controversial that the governor at the time. Eric Greitens, a Republican, called a special legislative session to overturn it. He failed, but a court ruled that the language did not allow religious protections. The language remains, but an exemption protecting those with sincere religious religious beliefs has gutted it.
Advocates nationwide have had other successes, including upholding laws creating “buffer zones” around clinics offering abortions. After a few challenges, Green says, eight feet is the magic number, or constitutional, between anti-abortion protesters and patients entering clinics.
She supports the First Amendment, “but there are limits when you block access to care.”
“Cities didn’t see abortion rights as a local issue,” she says. “St. Louis has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country due to the lack of prenatal care, especially among poor women and women of color. With the proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers preying on them, our ability to regulate them has an impact on maternal mortality. “
These crisis pregnancy centers are supported by religious groups opposed to abortion. While supporters include them in their religious testimony – a way to stop abortions and offer alternatives – opponents label them as deceitful because they seek to dissuade women from having surgery and fail to provide unbiased advice. Cities like San Francisco require crisis centers to visibly post that they do not offer abortion or contraception.
Last year, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg vetoed a zoning change allowing a crisis pregnancy center next to a new women’s health clinic.
“The issues of legality or morality of abortion go far beyond my level of pay as mayor,” Buttigieg said of his veto. “I don’t think it would be responsible for locating two groups, literally next to each other, in a neighborhood, who have diametrically opposed views on the most controversial social issue of our time.”
Buttigieg is now one of the main contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In Austin, anti-abortion activists oppose the budget amendment.
Andy Hogue, the communications director for the Travis County Republican Party, says it goes against his values and those of his party.
“As Republicans, we are strongly opposed to the death of innocent people in the womb. While it may appear on the surface that the Council’s goal is to increase access to abortion-related services as opposed to new state restrictions, this will have the effect of accelerating the number of abortions. He said.
The $ 150,000 could be placed elsewhere, he added, to ease traffic and lower property taxes.
“Austinites are moving in droves to the suburbs, where women’s clinics are scarce – if the city is to increase their ‘access’, maybe they should start finding ways to reduce the tax burden on the average person in town. Austin who wants to stay in the urban core, ”he adds.
Kyleen Wright, who heads the national Texans for Life organization, agrees.
“As Austin grapples with housing affordability, exacerbated by high property taxes and fueling an explosive homeless crisis, now is the time for the city to focus on basic municipal services rather than playing politics by spending money on elective surgeries, ”she says. .
Yet, says Limones, “It’s all about health equity. Even in the liberal city of Austin, women struggle to access health care.
This is why integrating reproductive health into the broader dialogue on health equity between communities is crucial, says Green. Closing the gaps in health care among diverse demographic groups includes access to abortion.
For Mistry, “Funding is one of the most important things you can do to support access to abortion. We hope to help more cities follow Austin and New York. “
James Russell is a Texas-based freelance writer.