Five years ago, an eleven-hour filibuster by then-state senator Wendy Davis inspired Texans to fill the Senate gallery and the halls of the Capitol. Clad in orange, protestors drowned out abortion opponents in the Senate and temporarily derailed legislation that restricted a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion. Weeks later, HB2—another version of the bill—passed the legislature in a special session, and as a result of the regulations it set in place, nearly three quarters of the abortion clinics in Texas closed.
Many of the clinics remain shuttered, meaning that women in some parts of the state must travel hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion and receive the required sonogram 24 hours in advance of the procedure. Private funds were set up to help underwrite the costs associated with both the procedure and travel time. And now, for the first time, those funds are joining a lawsuit in Texas targeting an assortment of abortion restrictions, and they hope to bring a new perspective that they believe will be useful in the courtroom.
Abortion advocates say that momentum from Davis’s filibuster led to Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a lawsuit that wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. The court declared that two provisions in the omnibus abortion bill—one requiring doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges, and another that made clinics meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers—placed an undue burden on patients and didn’t actually provide any medical benefits. By that newly-defined standard, abortion advocates say the laws they’re challenging now are also unconstitutional. “We have the law on our side, the constitution’s on our side,” says Aimee Arrambide, a volunteer board member for Fund Texas Choice. “Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the most recent Supreme Court decision, basically supports these claims.”
The plaintiffs are challenging laws that, among other things, require a sonogram at least 24 hours before an abortion, mandate that patients are given a “Woman’s Right to Know” booklet with medically inaccurate information, place extra regulations on abortion providers, and necessitate parental consent for teens seeking an abortion. The state, however, argues that these provisions are necessary.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has not only upheld requirements like many of those being challenged in this lawsuit, but affirmed multiple times that the state has an interest in safeguarding women’s health and protecting unborn life,” Marc Rylander, director of communications for the Office of the Attorney General, wrote in a statement. “Abortion providers have been complying with the laws being challenged in this case for years. They are common-sense measures necessary to protect Texas women from unhygienic, unqualified clinics that put women’s lives and reproductive health at risk. It is ridiculous that these activists are so dedicated to their radical pro-abortion agenda that they would sacrifice the health or lives of Texas women to further it.”
After Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the state may have a harder time proving that the laws protect Texas women. And the abortion funds that have joined the lawsuit hope they can provide key testimony in the courtroom. “[Abortion providers] see the perspective once the client has gotten to the clinic and what they have to face there, and [funds] can demonstrate the challenges they face leading up to their appointment,” says Arrambide. “So I think that provides us a bigger picture of just how burdensome these restrictions are, especially the cumulative effect of the restrictions.”
Abortion funds, which use a mix of grants and private donations to provide people seeking abortions with financial support for their procedure, are often working with low income populations. The Lilith Fund, which was created in 2001, uses vouchers to partially finance abortions for people in Central and South Texas. Texas Equal Access Fund, founded in 2005, provides gap funding that covers part of the procedure for people in North Texas, particularly in the Panhandle where clients have to travel out of state into New Mexico to reach the nearest abortion clinic. The West Fund was established in 2014 in response to HB2, serving women in the El Paso area who may also have to travel out of state for abortion care.
Fund Texas Choice was also created after the passage of HB2 in 2013 to provide money for the travel costs that they anticipated would be associated with abortion access after clinics began to shutter around the state. As a “practical support abortion fund,” they don’t directly fund the abortion procedure, but instead provide financial assistance for any travel, lodging, and childcare costs that are associated with abortion access. Travel, the abortion funds point out, is often a major obstacle for people seeking the procedure, and the sonogram required 24 hours before a woman obtains an abortion often results in patients having to stay overnight in other cities.
“If you look at our average client, they generally travel 300 miles and spend three days trying to access an outpatient procedure that’s not even necessarily what you would consider surgical,” Arrambide says. “All these unnecessary things that are mandated, if they all just disappeared, a person could just go get their procedure within their community like any other kind of healthcare.”
For the funds created after HB2, the paradox of their ideal outcome of the lawsuit isn’t lost on them. “As a fund, at least our fund personally, we want to live in a world where we don’t have to exist, where we don’t have to provide funding because abortion is affordable,” Lili Gomez, the director of outreach for West Fund says.
But the lawsuit, which has long way to go, won’t guarantee affordable access to abortion in Texas if its won. One of the laws that isn’t included in this lawsuit is the coverage ban passed last year, which prevents insurance companies from covering abortion. That ban comes on top of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents any federal money from being used for abortion care. The funds describe their approach to expanding abortion access in Texas as an incremental one that began with Wendy Davis’s filibuster in 2013, gained momentum with Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and will continue beyond this lawsuit to challenge federal and state coverage bans in the future. Until then, Amanda Williams, executive director of the Lilith Fund, doesn’t see abortion funds going away soon.
“[Abortions are] going to continue to be an expense for people who don’t have the resources they need,” says Williams. “But I think if we can reopen clinics, if we can stop targeting providers so they can do their jobs, if we can put more clinics closer to people’s communities, that means less money aimed at traveling if the waiting period is gone. If people don’t have to do overnight stays anymore, that means more money in their pockets and more money for their families and a better chance at them being able to afford the abortion care that they need and therefore be able to take control of their own lives and their future.”