It's hard to overstate just how dire the situation is around women's health care in Texas. The state has the third highest rate of cervical cancer in the country and one in four women are uninsured. After cutting family-planning funding by around two-thirds last legislative session, conservative lawmakers are now standing by their decision to cut off Planned Parenthood from the state's Women's Health Program, a move that ended $35 million in federal funding. (Here's a timeline of the fight.) Governor Rick Perry, who bragged about the decision at the recent CPAC conference, has said he'll find the money to keep the program—while still barring Planned Parenthood. No one seems to know exactly where he'll find the money, given that the state has already underfunded Medicaid by $4 billion last session.
In the meantime, Planned Parenthood, which serves 40 percent of the 130,000 who rely on the Women's Health Program, has already had to shut down more than a dozen clinics. Non-Planned Parenthood clinics, which may still be eligible for the program if the governor finds the money, are also struggling due to the drastic budget cuts to the program, and soon they may face increased demand. In spite of it all, women's health advocates promise this fight is just beginning.
More than 300 protesters arrived on Tuesday to welcome Planned Parenthood's "Women's Health Express" bus (or as the organization's president Cecile Richards calls it, the "don't-throw-women-under-the-bus bus.") After stopping at cities around the state, the entourage arrived across from the state capitol to protest new policies. It was diverse, both in terms of age and ethnicity, as were the speakers on stage, almost all of whom were female. It was also the second protest of the day—100 women showed up earlier as part of a weekly protest against the decision called "Seeing Red."
The signs were quite creative. Planned Parenthood had some stating "Don't Mess With Texas Women" or "No to metas con las mujeres de Tejas." Then there were the homemade ones: "Dump Anita's Husband" "Perry screws 130,000 women so who's the slut?" and, possibly the funniest, "If men could get pregnant, birth control would be available in gumball machines."
The program featured women who used the Women's Health Program. At first, Delia Henry read nervously from a script, telling her story of relying on Planned Parenthood for information about her sexual health when her single father was too embarrassed to talk to her. Later, as part of the Women's Health Program, she discovered she had diabetes during a routine blood test. "This program saved my life," she said to applause.
In the crowd were women with similar stories. Sarah Jeansonne was there with her two daughters, explaining to them that politicians were trying to take away health care for women. The issue was hardly just politics for her. "It was a public clinic that told me I was pregnant with this one," she said, caressing her daughter's blonde hair. "It wasn't planned. What if that wasn't there?" She began to tear up.
"We all used Planned Parenthood at one time," Jeansonne's friend Kelly Taggle said. "Something has to fill in the gaps."
The program featured everything from country singers to the Austin mayor, but undoubtedly the crowd favorite was state Representative Dawna Dukes, in red patent leather pumps to show she was "seeing red." Dukes began with a story of getting excited to speak at her church, founded by her grandmother and where all her siblings had been married. Then she was told she could not speak. At first it was out of fear the church would appear to favor one candidate over another. "I'm unopposed," she told the crowd.
Later, she said, the church called her back to tell her the U.S. Congress of Bishops barred her from speaking because she supported the Women's Health Program on her website.
"I'm mad as hell," she thundered. "I have not the time to go round and round and neither do Texas women."
Dukes excoriated the governor, pointing out that the state's Legislative Budget Board, the independent board that runs the state's calculations, had called the program the most cost effective in Texas and recommended it be expanded. While Perry blames the Obama administration for the change in rules, Dukes was quick to point out that the rules for the program were conceived in 2007, under then-President George W. Bush. "Don't blame Barack," she said as the crowd cheered. "Blame your stupid recommendations under the Capitol dome!"
By the time Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards took the stage, the clapping was pretty much nonstop. Richards kept her remarks short. "We do more to prevent unintended pregnancies than any organization in the country," she said, a frequent point among the speakers.
Then she moved to politics. "We're the biggest tent," she said. "By God, women's health care does not come with a political label."
Just don't tell Rick Perry.