By Ashley Lopez, KUT
Kaiser Health News
Austin is about to become the nation’s first city to fund groups that help women seeking abortions pay for related logistical costs, such as a babysitter, a hotel room or transportation.
The move pushes back against a Texas law that took effect Sept. 1. The state law bans local governments from giving money to organizations that provide abortions — even if that money doesn’t pay for the procedure.
Last week, the Austin City Council approved the related line item in the city’s latest budget. Starting Oct. 1, it sets aside $150,000 to be passed along to nonprofits that provide “logistical support services” for low-income women in the city seeking an abortion.
None of the groups provide abortion, so supporters of the new city budget item describe it as a unique workaround to the state’s law.
“The city has to find creative ways to help vulnerable communities in our city, and I see this as just another way,” said Councilwoman Delia Garza.
John Seago, the legislative director for Texas Right to Life, said that though Austin is not violating the letter of the state law, its leaders are clearly violating “the principle” behind it.
“The legislature did not believe that it is ethical to use taxpayer dollars to benefit the abortion industry,” Seago said. “So whether it is the clinic itself, whether it is paying for the procedure itself, there is an industry built around that that we don’t want to use taxpayer dollars to benefit.”
Shortly after the city’s budget passed, former Austin Councilman Don Zimmerman sued the city in an effort to block the funding. In his lawsuit, filed in a Travis County district court, Zimmerman claimed “this expenditure of taxpayer money violates the state’s abortion laws.”
Supporters of Austin’s effort say the budget item is on solid legal ground. They also say it’s an important step to ensure that low-income women, at least locally, can obtain legal abortions in a state that has been steadily restricting access to the procedure in the past decade.
Erika Galindo, an organizer with the Lilith Fund, told the Austin City Council during a meeting this summer that Austin should take a stand as some cities pass all-out bans on abortion. Earlier in the summer, Waskom — a small city in East Texas — banned the procedure and declared itself the state’s first “sanctuary city for the unborn.”
“The city of Austin has an opportunity to set a new standard for creative and equitable solutions for communities at a time when state lawmakers and local governments like Waskom’s city council have turned their backs on low-wage workers and women of color,” Galindo said.
Austin’s city leaders said the makeup of their city council likely played a role in the decision to fund programs that provide logistical support. While Waskom’s ban was passed by an all-male council, Austin has a majority-female city council.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that you have a majority-female council making these kinds of issues a priority,” Garza said. “We have seen how this right has been chipped away at — all kinds of barriers being placed in front of women who are simply seeking an option that is still a constitutional right in this country.”
More than half of the abortion clinics in Texas have closed since 2013, going from 40 clinics to 17. Broad swaths of the huge state have no abortion providers.
City leaders and staff in Austin are still working out how women will qualify for the money and what groups to contract with, but groups already doing this work across the state will likely get some of the city funding.
Among those groups is Fund Texas Choice, a statewide nonprofit that provides travel arrangements for abortion appointments for women in Texas who can’t afford them. Organizer Sarah Lopez said the group’s help can include providing women with gas money, bus tickets or ride-sharing — and sometimes a hotel room to recuperate in.
More often than not, Lopez said, she’s helping women who are already parents and who can barely afford the abortion procedure itself — let alone the costs that come with making it to the appointment. For many of these women, she said, a little help goes a long way.
“I was chatting with someone yesterday,” Lopez said. “She had just made her appointment but then rescheduled because she was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize I would have to be gone for three or four days — so I had to push my appointment another week and a half in order to find child care.’”
Texas law requires at least two office visits before a woman can get an abortion. And women living in rural parts of the state often have to travel 200 miles away, or more, to the closest abortion clinic.
In 2013, Texas lawmakers passed a controversial law that imposed strict restrictions on abortion providers in the state. That law, known as House Bill 2, required clinics to be equipped and staffed like surgical centers, and it required doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Following that law’s passage, many clinics around the state shut their doors.
Now women who live outside major cities often face big travel barriers when they seek an abortion. The new funds allocated by Austin are only for women who reside within the city.
Women living in parts of the state that don’t have a clinic will continue to rely on statewide programs such as the one run by Lopez’s group.
Lopez said Austin’s effort takes off some of the financial pressure on groups like hers and frees up more money for women living in rural areas.
“I think it’s incredible,” Lopez said of the Austin decision. “I really hope to see that other cities in Texas kind of follow suit.”