This editorial was first published in the Austin American-Statesman. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
It’s impossible to deny the need for quality, affordable health care in Texas, where one in four women of childbearing age is uninsured and the teen birth rate is 50 percent higher than the rest of the country.
So why would lawmakers try to make it even harder for people to get the care they need?
Senate Bill 22, which the governor is expected to sign, cuts off government support for existing sources of health care — clinics that provide cancer screenings, birth control and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, or outreach efforts to reduce teen pregnancies — if those services are affiliated with an abortion provider, such as Planned Parenthood.
SB 22 isn’t about preventing taxpayer support of abortions. Federal and state policies already prohibit that, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s health. Rather, this bill by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, is just another tactic in the state’s scorched-earth battle against Planned Parenthood — with an unkind disregard for the tens of thousands of people, mostly low-income, who get non- abortion health care from the organization.
Supporters of SB 22 made Planned Parenthood’s East Austin clinic the poster child of the debate, not realizing it’s likely safe from the impact of this bill for at least two decades.
The East Seventh Street clinic does not perform abortions, but it provided other services, primarily birth control and sexually transmitted infections testing and treatment, for more than 5,000 people last year. Planned Parenthood leases the site from the city of Austin for $1 a year, the kind of arrangement SB 22 seeks to prohibit.
With Planned Parenthood’s contract nearing a renewal in 2020, and with Austin City Council members concerned the Legislature might take action this session that would affect the clinic, the council in November approved a new 20-year lease on the site. Because state laws cannot apply retroactively to contracts that are already in effect, city officials believe this will keep the clinic legally protected until at least 2038, when the city has an option under the contract to extend the lease another 20 years.
We applaud the council’s foresight in shoring up this public health resource. “Our mission is to promote the health and well-being of our residents,” council member Kathie Tovo told us this week, and the East Austin clinic “provides tremendously important health care serves to men and women.”
Dr. Stephanie Hayden, the director of Austin Public Health, underscored the value of the clinic during a House committee hearing in April. She noted that STI rates have “skyrocketed” in Texas in recent years. Things are so busy at the health department’s STI clinic on Waller Street that “by noon most days, our clinic is full,” Hayden told legislators. “If we were to try to absorb 5,000 people [who are currently served by Planned Parenthood’s East Austin clinic], that would be extremely difficult.”
The East Austin clinic is the only Planned Parenthood facility in the state that operates under a lease with a government agency, spokeswoman Sarah Wheat told us. Still, the sweeping language of SB 22 leaves the organization concerned that other partnerships could be imperiled.
For instance, the organization receives free condoms from the city of El Paso to hand out at its clinics. The Austin school district is looking at adopting a middle school sexual education curriculum developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. And the organization works with Austin and other communities on campaigns to prevent teen pregnancy — an urgently needed effort, especially with Hispanic teens in Texas giving birth at nearly twice the rate of their counterparts across the U.S.
SB 22 is the latest volley in the state’s war on Planned Parenthood, but each time the casualties are low-income Texans who rely on the organization for non-abortion services. Thousands lost access to family planning services when lawmakers slashed funding in 2011, and thousands more lost basic preventative care after the state overhauled its health program for low-income women to shun Planned Parenthood. Contractors under the replacement Healthy Texas Women program in 2017 saw slightly more than 50,000 women, less than a third of the number the state had envisioned.
Add this to Texas’ stubborn refusal to expand Medicaid, and to lawmakers’ failure this session to give new mothers a year of Medicaid coverage instead of just two months, and it’s no surprise Texas trails much of the nation in key health indicators.
The abortion issue remains a bitterly divisive one. We respect the fact that people in both camps have sincere and strongly held views. But it benefits no one to block access to vitally needed non-abortion services, which account for about 95 percent of the services Planned Parenthood provided last year to nearly 150,000 Texans.
We’re all better served when Texans get the care they need.