How a Media Myth Helped Close Half of Texas Women's Health Clinics 1 Year Later
On August 4 a federal trial begins in Austin challenging a Texas law passed last summer which requires abortion clinics in the state to qualify as "ambulatory surgical centers" starting this September. The ambulatory surgical centers requirements say that a clinic must have doorways and hallways of a certain width, and "additional infrastructure like pipelines for general anesthesia and large sterilization equipment." As Mother Jones noted, "These requirements aren't medically necessary for an abortion, and they cost a lot of money to implement."
Abortion clinics already have safety requirements, according to medical experts there is no evidence that the additional surgical center restriction "positively affects health outcomes," and these requirements could severely reduce the number of clinics. There are more than 13 million women in Texas, but according to the Wall Street Journal, only seven clinics in the entire state currently meet the extra requirements.
Texas has already lost half of its women's health clinics in the year since the law was passed. Another portion of the law which went into effect last year, and which is currently being appealed, requires doctors who perform abortions to have "admitting privileges" at nearby hospitals. The Texas Medical Board already regulates all physicians in the state, but the requirement forces doctors to also be judged by a nearby hospital -- which some hospitals have refused to do, and which is impossible if there is no hospital within the vicinity.
The rapidly closing clinics have created a health crisis in Texas, leaving millions of women hundreds of miles away from accessing basic health services, and forcing many to resort to using unsafe and illegal procedures. The crisis is not just on lawmakers' hands, however; it was also championed and perpetuated by the media, who failed to investigate an anti-choice myth about the clinics before it was too late.
The Texas State Senate voted to impose this legislation a year ago because lawmakers in favor of the proposal insisted that the clinics were unsafe and needed increased regulation. Media helped give this claim oxygen, with multiple Fox News contributors claiming that the law would make women safer. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said the law would simply make clinics "meet certain medical standards." The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger dismissed concerns about the bill, insisting the law stemmed from a desire to "regulate this industry."
But a review of state records by the Texas Tribune following the passage of the bill found no evidence that unsafe procedures were taking place; the violations were administrative. The Texas State Health services had concluded that facilities were protecting patients, and had appropriate measures in place to correct the few safety violations that had arisen over the years.
It was too late. The myth of the unsafe clinics was created by anti-choice activists, and the media accepted and repeated it, failing to properly investigate the claims and hold lawmakers accountable when they had the chance.
As the chief executive officer of Whole Woman's Health told the New York Times, "The point of this legislation was to make abortion inaccessible ... It wasn't about safety, because there is no safety problem around abortion in Texas."
A recent Republican investigation into the supposedly "dangerous" abortion clinics nationwide similarly discovered that "clinics are already very well-regulated, and the services they provide are extremely safe." Dozens of state health departments and attorneys general told Congress after the Texas law was passed that abortion facilities nationwide are routinely inspected and subject to onerous regulation.
And medical experts have repeatedly said that ambulatory surgical center and admitting privileges requirements are unnecessary and place undue burden on doctors and women who need access to this health care. The Texas District of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposed the initial draft of the Texas law because the restrictions had no "basis in public health or safety," and noted that "No other outpatient procedure requires a physician to have active admitting privileges in a hospital within a specific distance." The Texas Hospital Association noted that admitting privileges are unnecessary and inappropriate in emergency situations.
One year after this law was passed, evidence continues to mount that it is harmful and unnecessary. The federal trial beginning today has a chance to reverse the crisis and protect Texas women's right to basic health care -- and this time, media figures have no excuse for ignoring medical experts and perpetuating the myth this law was based on.