"The Point of These Laws Is To Confuse People": Texas Abortion Ban Aims to Intimidate

Women in Texas who dealt with the state's restrictions on reproductive rights while getting abortions talk about the message sent by the latest ban

Valerie Peterson became pregnant in 2015. At 16 weeks, it was clear the fetus had problems, starting with hydrocephalus, a condition in which the cerebrospinal fluid is in the brain. In Peterson’s case, the fetus's brain stem was not attached to the spinal cord, and its face had extreme abnormalities. 

That left Peterson, already at risk due to her age and weight, with two options: terminate the pregnancy or carry the fetus until the pregnancy ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. Peterson, who told me she was in a great deal of mental anguish, made the decision to terminate. 

But Texas law made that easier said than done.

Peterson had to go to Orlando, Florida to get the procedure—an expensive trip made necessary by the restrictions then in place in Texas. She told me that after that experience she is now committed to fighting against abortion bans and laws limiting access to reproductive healthcare.

"It angers me because when you look at the anti-abortion movement and you look at the laws that are being made, a lot of times they're made by males, they're made by white males," said Peterson. "And one of the things that I've always said is: how can another person legislate my body and tell me what I need to do about my health care and what's best for me?"

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"One of the goals of this kind of thing is to intimidate and confuse people"

Last month, on May 19, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed into law a bill that bans abortions in the state at six weeks gestation. The governor touted the law, which is scheduled to go into effect on September 1, as an example of the Texas Legislature having "worked together on a bipartisan basis to pass a bill that I'm about to sign that ensures that the life of every unborn child who has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion."

This draconian law, if it stands, adds another tight time restriction to a host of hurdles people in need of an abortion face in the state and will effectively cut off the right to reproductive healthcare for thousands of Texans each year.

Cristina Parker, communications director for Texas reproductive rights advocacy group the Lilith Fund, told me that her group is hopeful the law would be blocked by the courts. But if the ban goes into effect come September 1, Lilith Fund has a plan in place.

"For us, that means raising money, getting the word out, and planning for a world in which we're having to help clients get out of the state rather than access care in the state," Parker said. 

Parker noted that even if the ban is blocked, the damage is likely already done. Texans will hear about the ban, whether or not it survives court challenges. For many people in need of reproductive healthcare, the fear that getting an abortion is illegal adds to the stigma surrounding the procedure in Texas. And that's exactly the point. 

"I think one of the goals of this kind of thing is to intimidate and confuse people about what their rights are," Parker said.

"A lot of stigma"

Briana McClellan, a social worker with reproductive rights group the Texas Equal Access Fund, faced difficulties obtaining an abortion in 2009. She told me the issues were mostly related to the cost of the procedure and the distance to a clinic. She got the abortion in college and didn't even know she was pregnant when a routine checkup revealed she was eight weeks in. 

McClellan said that one of the most overwhelming aspects to the entire experience was the social pressure she faced, knowing how the people she grew up with viewed reproductive rights. 

"It was just a lot of stigma for me to go forward with the pregnancy as well as stigma to get the abortion," McClellan said. "My family's pretty old fashioned, so they don't agree with abortion."

At Texas Equal Access Fund, McClellan works with people seeking abortions who are facing social pressure and emotional barriers to getting the procedure. She also helps people connect "to different organizations that help them with transportation assistance, child care assistance, and different resources in the community for them to be able to get their abortion done."

The new law would make things even more difficult, she told me.

"A lot of people do not know that they are pregnant sometimes between six and 10 weeks, even longer," McClellan said.


"The point of these laws is to confuse people"

If the bill is allowed to stand, McClellan said, she fears that people without access to proper care will start to do self-managed abortions, which can be very dangerous—even fatal. 

"People are going to feel like there's no other way they can turn to," said McClellan."I myself, I can honestly say I may have tried that if I didn't have financial assistance or I didn't know where to go to get an abortion." 

The bill's passage and signing into law means that many Texans already believe that it's in place, said McClellan, who added that her clients regularly misunderstand the law. Many already think that getting an abortion in the state is illegal. 

"And so I did have to explain to them that what they were doing was legal, because a lot of the time most people don't really know," McClellan said.

Even if the ban is overturned, said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of abortion testimony group We Testify, that doesn't mean that the law isn't serving its purpose. Irrespective of the end result, the bill's passage will add to the stigma around reproductive rights in Texas—and that's the whole point. 

"The point of these laws is to confuse people and make them think that abortion isn't even an option, and we must all challenge that assumption to not allow them to win," said Bracey Sherman. "What's most important is that we continue to remind people seeking abortions that the law is not in effect and abortion is still legal throughout the United States."

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