Women in Texas have to drive hundreds of miles to reach an abortion clinic.

In Texas, the Closest Abortion Clinic Might Be Hours Away. These Women Will Drive You There.

In Texas, the Closest Abortion Clinic Might Be Hours Away. These Women Will Drive You There.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 17 2016 3:00 PM

Long Road Ahead

A volunteer group in Texas is trying its best to drive around TRAP laws. 

Supreme Court / Abortion
Protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

In her free time, my mom drives women to get abortions. She lives in Houston, which has three abortion clinics—more than any city in Texas except San Antonio. But in the wake of the restrictions on abortion providers imposed by House Bill 2, more and more Texas women are traveling longer and longer distances for safe abortions.

That is the point of HB2, and of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws in general. Straight-up banning abortion is the dream, obviously, but failing that, if you can just make abortion inconvenient enough, maybe women will decide not to bother. Maybe they’ll think, “Hey, I really wanted an abortion given that I’m out of a job and already have three other kids I can’t afford to feed, but it’s too much trouble to haul 75 miles to the nearest clinic two days in a row, so I guess I’ll just have to spend the next 18 years raising the baby instead.”

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When she ruled to uphold HB2, circuit court Judge Edith Jones dismissed the (very deliberate) obstacles posed by the closure of so many clinics that don’t happen to have doctors with nearby admitting privileges or double as “ambulatory surgical centers.” These are the restrictions at the heart of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court case that’s expected to be decided later this year. So what if some women in rural Texas have to drive 150 miles to the closest abortion clinic? “Do you know how long that takes in Texas at 75 miles an hour?” Jones asked. “This is a peculiarly flat and not congested highway.”

But if you don’t have a car, or you can’t pay for gas, or you don’t have anyone who can chauffeur you, you may have to put in some real effort to reach a clinic, even in the fourth-largest city in the country, which has terrible-to-nonexistent public transportation. And, because as of February 2012 Texas has one of those awesome sonogram laws that require women seeking abortion services to show up 24 hours in advance to see the fetus on a screen and listen to its heartbeat and hear a spiel about the sanctity of life, women have to make two trips.

A study released on Thursday by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas (TxPEP) found that—unsurprisingly—HB2 is achieving its goal of making it harder for Texas women to get abortions. The TxPEP survey of women in Texas’ five biggest metropolitan areas who obtained abortions after HB2 became law compared the “burden for women whose nearest clinic in 2013 closed and those whose nearest clinic remained open” and found that:

For women whose nearest clinic closed (38%), the mean one-way distance traveled was 85 miles, compared with 22 miles for women whose nearest clinic remained open. … [M]ore women whose nearest clinic closed traveled more than 50 miles (44% vs 10%), had out-of-pocket expenses greater than $100 (32% vs 20%), had a frustrated demand for medication abortion (37% vs 22%), and reported that it was somewhat or very hard to get to the clinic. 
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The Clinic Access Support Network helps relieve Houston-area women of this last burden. While it provides other forms of support, its primary function is simple: Its volunteers drive women to their abortion appointments.

Angie Hayes, who started the organization in August 2013, was volunteering as a clinic escort when she noticed a number of women showing up and leaving in cabs (since, of course, you cannot drive yourself home from an abortion). The founding of CASN was unrelated to the enactment of HB2 that same summer; Hayes simply saw an unmet need and decided to do something about it. “It surprised me that there was a need for this and I live here,” says Hayes, a high school math teacher who is also in graduate school for public health. “I was aghast.” She started organizing an informal network of volunteer drivers, and it snowballed from there: CASN now has about 36 volunteers and drives about 150 Houston-area women per year.

160316_DX_Angie-Hayes
Angie Hayes founded Clinic Access Support Network in 2013.

Angie Hayes

“It’s true that a lot of the women we help don’t have the means to get to clinic in a taxi,” Hayes tells me. “But there are also people who’ve offered to pay the person 50 bucks an hour just to be there, because they don’t have anybody in their family or social network who supports their decision.”

 “So many of these women are just terrified of telling their friends or family,” says my mom Jane Moser. “And meanwhile, these relatives are going around announcing that anyone who gets an abortion is going to hell, because they have no idea that people they know and love have had the procedure. I just drove a girl who said she didn’t have a single friend who she could trust with her decision. All her friends were very outspoken right-to-lifers, so she was left totally alone with a decision she knew she had to make. Telling her parents was also out of the question. Even though she loves them and respects their positions and didn’t want to disappoint them, she was completely un-conflicted; she never wavered once. But she had absolutely no one to talk to.”

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That’s why so many of the women find themselves unburdening themselves to the virtual stranger driving them. “Sometimes they don’t talk at all—one woman sat in the car with me for an hour each way with a hoodie pulled over her face—but a lot of times they really need to get the decision off their chests,” my mom says. “I think a lot of them take comfort in the age difference, in the fact that I’m not a peer.”

“I wish I could put some of these congressmen in my backseat and let them hear these women’s stories,” another volunteer told me. “Most of them have jobs and are trying to get ahead. A lot of them are really invested in the children they already have and want to do right by them. Many of them are religious—and for them there’s this twinge of ‘I hope I’m doing right by my religion, but this is just what I really have to do.’ They just find themselves in difficult situations.”

There was the woman who still occasionally had sex with her ex, so he would continue to come around and spend time with the three children they had together. There was the grocery-store clerk whose first-ever sexual partner beat her and “didn’t believe in birth control”; she had to sneak out to meet her ride. There was the mother of four living in a domestic-violence shelter who had to be picked up inside a police station, and the dental assistant whose husband had just found a job after six months of unemployment, who would have to leave work and take her 4 year-old out of school and perhaps fall behind once more on mortgage payments for the tiny house they’d already come close to losing. 

CASN occasionally drives minors—they were recently scrambling to help a 17-year-old honor student who has been trying to get an abortion for months but has been stymied over and over, first by Texas’ stringent judicial bypass requirements and then by her lack of money, since the cost of an abortion procedure increases precipitately in the second trimester. For the most part, though, volunteers told me that the women they’re driving are in their mid-20s or older, the vast majority of them already mothers.

CASN isn’t getting calls from the abortion desert that is the Rio Grande Valley yet, but women are requesting rides from Texas A&M, 100 miles away (the abortion clinic in Bryan, a town 10 minutes from A&M, closed in 2013), from 85 miles away in Beaumont (its only abortion clinic closed in 2014), and 75 miles away in Brenham. But most calls come from inside Houston, a city so sprawling that 25 Manhattans could fit inside it.

The calls are coming more and more often in recent months, and the abortion clinics are getting more and more crowded. “When we started less than three years ago,” Hayes says, “if I couldn’t get someone a ride, I’d say, ‘Can you reschedule for the next day? Because I have a volunteer who can drive you then.’ It would generally be no problem. But now, if you call the clinic and say, ‘I’m pregnant and want to terminate,’ they’ll say, ‘OK, we can see you in 2½ weeks.’ ” It’s no wonder that a study found that the post-HB2 closure of so many of Texas’ abortion clinics has led to a spike in second-trimester abortions.

Whatever happens next, in either the Supreme Court or the Texas legislature, Beverly McPhail, a semi-retired social worker and academic who drove for CASN for a year, says that volunteers will continue working to help Texas women. “Do you remember that Margaret Wise Brown book The Runaway Bunny?” she asks me. “I always read it to my boys when they were little, and I’ve been thinking about it in this particular situation—wherever you go and whatever you do, we will find a way to get to you. These legislators are thinking, ‘How are we going to close all these doors? How many new obstacles can we put up?’ But as committed as they are to doing that, there are all these women out there who are equally committed. We’re asking, ‘How can we fund this woman? How can we drive this woman? What can we do for these women?’ Obviously we want to throw these people out of office, but no matter what they come up with next, we will find a way around them. We’ve always found a way. We’re determined.”