GAIL COLLINS

Cloudy in Texas for women

Longhorn legislators keep tightening the noose on abortion clinics

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People, have you noticed that the news has been really depressing lately? These are the times when you come to understand why there’s so much interest in watching kitten videos. Do you think it’s the weather?

Consider Texas, where two more abortion clinics were forced to close this week. If the courts don’t intervene, by the end of the year Texas may be down to six places where a woman can go to end a pregnancy. That’s in a state of 268,000 square miles, with 26 million people.

“I felt like I was having a funeral,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which ran the clinics. She and her staff and supporters held a vigil at the shuttered office in McAllen, a very poor town in the Rio Grande Valley. They read profiles of the women the clinic had served. Ms. Miller read one of a woman in her 40s, who had three children, two grandchildren and a strong conviction that she could not handle another birth.

The state now requires that any doctor who performs abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital. Few of them do, and it’s not medically necessary. Trying to comply, Ms. Miller contacted more than 30 doctors who had referred patients to her clinic and asked them for help — the applications needed to be co-signed by someone who had admitting privileges. Only one agreed. Then, when Ms. Miller asked the hospital for an application for the doctor to sign, the management refused to give her one.

Texas is leading the pack on this crusade, but other states are right behind it, restrained only by legal challenges. If Mississippi’s admitting privileges law is upheld, the state’s last abortion clinic will be closed. Alabama and Wisconsin are in the same situation; if their laws are upheld, they will be down to two clinics each.

Meanwhile, Texas is moving on to Step 2. As of September, it will require the clinics, which perform only simple early-term abortions, to have all the equipment, space and special air and water filters necessary to do a surgical procedure like a hip transplant. Ms. Miller determined the cost of complying would be in the neighborhood of $3 million per clinic.

There’s been a vague attempt to cloak all these new laws as health-care imperatives, but the cover is really pretty thin. During the debate on the Texas bill, state Sen. Dan Patrick told his colleagues to ask themselves: “How would God vote tonight if he were here?”

I am mentioning Mr. Patrick because this week he came in first for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, campaigning as “a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third.” He also has been desperately busy ginning up anti-immigration sentiment; this is the guy who claimed illegal immigrants were threatening Texas with “Third World diseases” like leprosy. The lieutenant governor, by the way, is one of the most powerful public officials in the state.

Well, turnout for the primaries was very low. It was freezing down there last Tuesday. Once again, we leap at a chance to blame the weather.

The social right has been waving the banner of religious freedom lately. What that generally means is the right to impose one’s theology on other people. Particularly, it seems, when sex is involved.

For instance, the Supreme Court is scheduled to decide, in its next big Obamacare case, whether the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby can refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby actually already covers its employees’ birth-control pills. Its owners just object to a few things, like intrauterine devices, because they have religious convictions against preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Scientists disagree that’s what an IUD does, but what the heck? It’s their theology.

The war on abortion is often grounded in a simple aversion to sex that does not lead to procreation. If that weren’t the case, Texas would be making a major-league effort to end its standing as one of the nation’s teen pregnancy capitals — by giving kids the best and most effective sex education programs in the country.

That isn’t happening. “By and large, it’s not getting better,” said Susan Tortolero of the University of Texas, an expert in sex education. (This gives me an opportunity to recall one lesson that required the teacher to demonstrate the alleged inability of condoms to protect against sexually transmitted diseases by constructing an 18-foot-long model of “Speedy the Sperm” and dragging it around the classroom.)

Maybe someday we can all come together and create a public space where kids are raised to make responsible decisions about their sex lives. Where every woman has access to help with family planning, even if they’re poor and live in remote rural areas. Where early abortions are available when they’re needed but abortions after the first trimester are extremely rare. After all, if you poke the public, you’ll find that’s where the majority’s preference already dwells.

Or, at least, maybe it will get warm and sunny.

Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.



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