Mothers, Sisters, Daughters, Wives

In 2011 the Legislature slashed family planning funds, passed a new sonogram law, and waged an all-out war on Planned Parenthood that has dramatically shifted the state’s public health priorities. In the eighteen months since then, the conflict has continued to simmer in the courts, on the campaign trail, and in at least one PR disaster. Meanwhile, what will happen to Texas women—and their fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands—remains very much unclear.

the sonographer to undress completely from the waist down and asked to lie on the exam table and cover herself with a light paper sheet. She would then put her feet in stirrups, so that her legs are spread at a very wide angle, and asked to scoot down the table so that the pelvis is just under the edge.” 

At this point, if there had been thought bubbles floating over the heads of the male legislators, they almost certainly would have been filled with expletives of embarrassment or further commentary on the carpet design.

What does this vaginal sonogram look like?” Luna asked, ever curious.  

Well, I’m glad you asked,” Alvarado answered, “because instead of just describing it, I can show you.”

And so the state representative from Houston’s District 145 put both elbows on the lecturn and held up in her clenched fist a long, narrow plastic probe with a tiny wheel at its tip. It looked like some futuristic instrument of torture. “This is the transvaginal probe,” Alvarado explained, pointing it at her colleagues as she spoke, her finger on what looked like a trigger. “Colleagues, this is what we’re talking about… . This is government intrusion at its best. We’ve reached a”—she searched for the word—“climax in government intrusion.”

Those who could still focus gaped at Alvarado. No one spoke. The silence seemed to confirm for Alvarado something she had long suspected: most of the men in the House chamber didn’t know the difference between a typical ultrasound—the kind where a technician presses a wand against a pregnant belly and sends the happy couple home with a photo for their fridge—and this. She locked Miller in her sights. “What would a woman undergo in your bill?” she asked. 

Miller seemed confused. “It could be an ultrasound, it could be a sonogram,” he began. “Actually, I have never had a sonogram done on me, so I’m not familiar with the exact procedure—on the medical procedure, how that proceeds.”

There are two different kinds of sonograms,” Alvarado said, trying again to explain. “The abdominal, which most of our colleagues may think [of as] ‘jelly on the belly’—that is not what would be done here. A woman that is eight to ten weeks pregnant would have a transvaginal procedure.” Miller stammered a response, but Alvarado was not done with him. She continued the grilling for several more minutes, keeping Miller on the ropes with a sustained barrage of icky female anatomy talk. Ultimately, however, the room was stacked against her. 

On March 7 Miller’s bill passed 107–42. 

Over the next few months, as the Senate passed its version of the bill, which was sponsored by Houston senator Dan Patrick, and as Governor Perry signed the legislation into law at a solemnly triumphant ceremony, the exchange between Alvarado and Miller stood as a glaring reminder of the peculiar way in which women could be largely boxed out of decisions that were primarily concerning them. (A number of female Republican legislators supported the bill too, but the overwhelming majority of the votes cast in its favor were from men.) Of course, women have rarely held the reins of power in Texas, but there has also seldom been a season as combative on the subject of women’s health as the one we have experienced in the past eighteen months.

Miller’s bill was only the beginning of what turned out to be the most aggressively anti-abortion and anti-contraception session in history. In the words of one female reporter who covered the Legislature, “It was brutal.” Not only did the sonogram law pass, but drastic cuts were made to statewide family planning funds, and a Medicaid fund known as the Women’s Health Program was sent back to Washington, stamped with a big “No thanks.” When the dust settled, Texas had turned down a $9-to-$1 match of federal dollars, and the health care of 280,000 women had been placed in jeopardy. And that wasn’t all. Earlier this year, around the time that the new laws began to take effect, an epic, if short-lived, fight broke out between Planned Parenthood and the Susan G. Komen Foundation, pitting two of Texas’s most powerful women against each other and highlighting the agonizing, divisive nature of the debate over women’s health. No sooner had this conflict subsided than the Legislature’s decision to kill the Women’s Health Program was dragged into the courts for a series of reversals and counter-reversals that is still not resolved.

These conflicts could all be seen as the latest in a long struggle, as women in Texas try to gain control over not just their own health care decisions but their own economic futures and those of their families. This is the state, after all, from which the modern abortion wars originated in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, a case, let’s not forget, that pitted a 21-year-old Houston woman and two upstart lady lawyers from Austin against formidable Dallas County district attorney Henry Wade. It’s a decades-old battle between the sexes over who knows best and, more importantly, who’s in charge. And over the past year, the fighting has intensified. On the one side are the Carol Alvarados of the world; on the other, the Sid Millers. The outcome will determine nothing less than the fate of Texas itself. 

For most of Texas history, even during the seemingly halcyon period that was Ann Richards’s governorship, the goal of Texas women to achieve parity with Texas men has been out of reach. The men who settled the state were a tough bunch. They had to survive a harsh, unforgiving climate; murderous Comanche; soil that was in many places relentlessly resistant to cultivation; rattlesnakes; bandits; long, lonely cattle drives; and more. But women—to paraphrase Richards—had to do most of that barefoot and pregnant and without any of the liberties or rights that men enjoyed. As the saying goes, “Texas is heaven for men and dogs, but it’s hell for women and horses.”

Many frontier women learned quickly that they were effectively on their own—the downside to

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