On September 2, 2021, I received a text from an old friend, an advocate for global reproductive health. “Sending love to Texas,” she wrote. “How are you all doing?” In short, not well. The day before, Senate Bill 8 took effect; that night, the United States Supreme Court announced it would not block the law from being enforced. In Texas, where I have lived for the past six years, abortion is now effectively banned after six weeks of pregnancy—a point at which many people don’t even know they are pregnant. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. Private individuals, within Texas or outside of it, can sue anyone they believe has aided or abetted someone in securing an abortion in violation of state law. Plaintiffs do not need to have a relationship to the person seeking an abortion and they can be awarded at least $10,000 in addition to refunded legal fees if they win their lawsuit.
This legislation does not come as a surprise. Banning abortion was a key goal of Republican Texas lawmakers in what has been, as many critics have pointed out, the most conservative state legislative session in 30 years. As a student and scholar of women’s and gender history, I have long been conscious of Roe v. Wade’s vulnerability. I have been advocating for abortion rights since I was an undergraduate intern at the National Organization for Women in the early 2000s, fighting against the federal “Partial-Birth” Abortion Ban Act, which was signed into law in 2003 by President George Bush, and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007. For more than a decade, I have been teaching college students about the history of feminist and LGBTQ+ movements in the United States. I have written on the early successes of the anti-abortion movement in this publication. As I tell my students, historical change does not happen in one direction, and rights, once secured, cannot be taken for granted. But knowing all this does not make the reality of S.B. 8 any easier to bear.
I am particularly distraught for all the young people I know coming of age at this moment in Texas who will likely need access to abortion in their lives. Twice a week, I teach a group of first-year students who are taking my course called “Motherhood in America” at the University of Texas at Austin. In class, we discussed this legislation in light of the fact that the majority of people in the United States who have abortions are already parents. Most students expressed disagreement with the law, but only one considered what S.B. 8 might mean for her personally as an undergraduate in her very first semester of college. An unexpected pregnancy could easily derail her educational and career goals. This legislation, if allowed to stand, will undoubtedly shape these students’ futures. I envision panicked First Response tests, phone calls to out-of-state abortion providers, desperate road trips, missed classes, lost jobs, and reluctant pregnancies. I don’t want to think about the dangerous risks these young people might take by trying to self-induce abortions or by trusting people who could take advantage of their need.
This massive achievement for the so-called “pro-life” movement is even more appalling in the face of policies and practices in Texas that already threaten the lives and well-being of parents and children in visceral ways. According to a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at 18.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, the maternal mortality rate in Texas is higher than the United States average, which already ranks the highest among other wealthy, developed nations. In Texas, as in the nation, Black people face disproportionate risk of maternal mortality. During the past legislative session, state lawmakers voted to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage, but only from two to six months, rather than the full year the bill’s authors had proposed. These Medicaid recipients are the very people who will be least likely to afford an out-of-state trip to end an unwanted pregnancy. What is more, Texas has the highest uninsured rate of any state in the nation, a group that includes an estimated 995,000 children, but lawmakers failed to expand Medicaid access this session.
This past year in Texas, we have also witnessed an unprecedented attack by state legislators on transgender youth. Over the course of the 2021 legislative session, Republican lawmakers filed thirteen anti-trans bills, more than in any other state. Proposed legislation would have banned youth from participating in sports that align with their gender identities, and even criminalized guardians and medical practitioners as child abusers for providing young people with gender-affirming care. In July, my daughter and I stood outside the State Capitol with our homemade cardboard signs shouting “Protect trans kids!” as trans youth and their allies testified inside the building against hateful sports bans. None of these bills became law, but the damage has been done. Republican state legislators have fostered a growing trend of bullying and discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth. Parents of trans and gender nonconforming young people in Texas are on edge—some have already left the state. Governor Greg Abbott has promised that when the state’s lawmakers reconvene for a third special legislative session in late September, they will consider an anti-trans sports ban yet again.
And, we are now in the midst of a COVID-19 resurgence that is proving more dangerous for children. Although the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 in Texas is currently higher than it has been at any previous point in the pandemic, Governor Abbott has stood firm in his executive order that bans mask mandates by governmental entities. More than 50 public school districts in the state have defied him, but the University of Texas at Austin, where I work, has not. Although I have a temporary reprieve from teaching in-person due to the fact that Austin remains in the Stage Five risk level, I will be forced to teach on campus in a week, traveling from a cramped lecture hall of roughly 200 students, back to my two young, unvaccinated children at home. It is difficult to square Republican state leaders’ obsession with preserving fetal life with their lack of investment in children’s survival beyond the womb.
Some of my students have found solace and strength in demonstrating against S.B. 8 at the Texas State Capitol, but I am struggling to go about my daily life in a state that has placed a bounty on the heads of those who would assist a person attempting to secure essential healthcare. I know the urge to escape Texas is short-sighted. The fight to protect abortion access is a national, not a regional one. Lawmakers in other states are already planning to propose legislation modeled on S.B. 8. At the same time, my daughter and her friends are approaching puberty. The first among them has gotten her period. She can now be raped and forced to carry a child in the state of Texas. Her parents or medical providers could be sued for trying to help terminate her pregnancy. She is 9 years old.
Lauren Gutterman is the author of Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage and an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenGutterman.