Home Breaking News How Texas Abortion Volunteers Are Adapting After S.B. 8

How Texas Abortion Volunteers Are Adapting After S.B. 8

20
0
How Texas Abortion Volunteers Are Adapting After S.B. 8

Amanda Bennett was in the Texas legislature this past May, on the day that Senate Bill 8, a near-total ban on abortions, was passed by the state’s House of Representatives. Bennett, a twenty-nine-year-old pro-choice activist, had gone to the capitol to protest the legislation. She recalled the eerie calm that day—there wasn’t much debate over the law, which prohibits abortions upon detection of fetal cardiac activity (starting as early as six weeks into a pregnancy) and does not make exceptions for survivors of rape or incest. Many observers assumed that the law would soon be struck down in court. “It wasn’t anything like Wendy Davis’s filibuster,” Bennett said, referring to the Texas state senator’s thirteen-hour attempt to block S.B. 5, an earlier antiabortion bill, in 2013. “It just passed quietly. I honestly think even some of the Republicans thought it was purely symbolic.” But, nearly four months later, the Supreme Court refused to strike down the ban, and getting an abortion in Texas, which was already extremely difficult, became almost impossible.

Bennett is a member of the Bridge Collective, a small group of volunteers in Austin who drive people to their abortion appointments. She joined the organization in 2016, a couple of years after moving to the city, from Chicago, to study public policy at the University of Texas. Back then, she wanted to be a diplomat. But she developed an interest in abortion rights after talking to a college friend who had volunteered as an abortion-clinic escort—someone who helps patients enter and exit the facilities, which are often mobbed by protesters. “From talking to her, I realized that it was just luck that I’d always had access to birth control, and that my birth control had never failed,” Bennett recalled. At first, she worked part time for Fund Texas Choice, a group that helps people pay for travel costs, such as bus or plane fare, to get to abortion clinics both inside and outside the state. She quickly realized, however, that she wanted to do something more hands-on, so she signed up to be a driver with the Bridge Collective.

Early Newspaper

The number of abortion clinics in Texas has been on the decline for a long time, owing to targeted restrictions on abortion providers, or so-called TRAP laws, which impose hard-to-meet standards that often result in clinics having to shut down. (These range from building specifications—hallway widths or operating-room dimensions—to requirements regarding locations and relationships with nearby hospitals, which can be especially difficult for rural providers to fulfill.) In the past several years, Texas went from having more than forty surgical abortion clinics to a total of nineteen. The Bridge Collective serves people within a hundred-mile radius of Austin, where some of the remaining clinics are clustered. But even Austin locals need help getting to their appointments. “If you’re getting sedation, you can’t drive yourself,” Bennett explained, adding that “all the appointments are during the workday, and Austin has terrible public transportation.”

Bennett’s driver training was on a weekend, and the volunteers included men, women, and nonbinary people. In their regular lives, they were social workers, small-business owners, food-service workers, students, and retirees. (Bennett works at a digital-security company and has flexible hours, leaving her time to volunteer.) The trainees learned about the different types of appointments that they might be taking their passengers to: the ultrasound and consultation, which is required by Texas law before a patient is able to get an abortion; the medication abortion, which usually means going to the clinic, where a doctor will administer the first pill, and then stopping at a pharmacy afterward to pick up an additional prescription; and the in-clinic procedure, a surgical abortion that can sometimes take two days. They were also coached on matters of empathy. “Everyone having an abortion is thinking about the experience differently,” Bennett said. “Some people might talk about their ‘baby.’ Others talk about their ‘pregnancy.’ ” Drivers are taught to mirror their passengers’ language.

After the training, Bennett started driving. Once a month, she would get into her Ford hatchback and ferry someone to an abortion appointment. The passengers were surprisingly diverse: middle-aged moms from the Austin area; young people from Central Texas; soldiers from a military base in nearby Killeen, who are unable to get the procedure on the base owing to restrictions in the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions. “Sometimes people, when they do this, imagine, I’m going to be helping young women,” Bennett said. “But, really, people of all reproductive ages have abortions.”

The conversations in the car vary. “With some people, it’s like an Uber drive,” Bennett said—there’s a brief exchange, and then they ride in silence. For others, it’s the opposite. “I might be the first nonjudgmental person they get to talk to outside the clinic,” she explained. Bennett has heard tales from her passengers of rape, medical troubles, failed relationships, and child rearing. (Two-thirds of patients who seek an abortion already have children.) She also hears about her passengers’ dreams and goals. “Some people talk about finally making a decision for themselves,” she said, “or prioritizing themselves for a change.”

Money is almost always an issue. Abortions cost a minimum of five hundred dollars, and, in Texas, insurance doesn’t cover the procedure. Many people fail to get abortions because they can’t come up with the money. “The response to that is, ‘Well, a kid is way more expensive than an abortion,’ ” Bennett said. “But that doesn’t make five hundred dollars materialize when you need it.” Her passengers sometimes ask her to stop at an A.T.M., and often seem anxious because they’re short on cash.

In 2019, Bennett became one of the Bridge Collective’s core members, meaning that she started training and coördinating other drivers. This past August, there was a flurry of activity, as patients scrambled to get to clinics before S.B. 8 went into effect, on September 1st. Since then, the Bridge Collective’s core members have been scrambling to figure out their next chapter. Bennett said that calls for rides haven’t entirely stopped, but being an abortion driver now is much more complicated: it used to mean taking a short trip around the Austin area, but now it can entail taking someone to and from the airport, or driving six hours to Oklahoma, and then staying at a hotel overnight. In addition, the Bridge Collective has received hundreds of requests for Plan B pills and pregnancy tests. Its members have begun delivering these items and other safe-sex supplies to people in the Austin area, and the group plans to expand the service to college campuses and other cities throughout Texas. “We’re just exhausted,” Bennett said. “But we’re going to keep helping people. Because people need help.”

Bennett has also been fielding calls from well-meaning blue-state residents who are looking to provide aid in Texas. She suggests that they look closer to home. “They’ll say things like, ‘I wish I could do the kind of work that you do, but I live in New York.’ It’s, like, people in New York still need help getting abortions! Can you walk into a pharmacy and get abortion pills?” Even in New York, the answer is no, which means that abortion drivers are in demand.


New Yorker Favorites

Source:
How Texas Abortion Volunteers Are Adapting After S.B. 8