OPINION

The Choice Between Birth Control or Food on the Table: Could You Decide?

Reproductive rights advocates fill the Texas capitol celebrating the defeat of the controversial anti-abortion bill SB5, which was up for a vote on the last day of the legislative special session June 25, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Reproductive rights advocates fill the Texas capitol celebrating the defeat of the controversial anti-abortion bill SB5, which was up for a vote on the last day of the legislative special session June 25, 2013 in Austin, Texas.  (2013 Getty Images)

The rural community in the Texas Rio Grande Valley where Daniela lives has few options for health care. So when the mobile clinic that once visited her community stopped coming, services stopped with it. Because she was having breast pain, she managed to travel to a distant clinic for a mammogram—no small feat given that transportation options are essentially nonexistent—only to find they didn’t have a mammogram machine. Daniela was referred to a hospital, but she couldn’t afford the $800 charge for the test. After a six-month wait, Daniela got an appointment at another clinic, but when she arrived, it no longer had the equipment. Without any other options for affordable care, she’s simply enduring the pain.

“I don’t even think about it,” she says. “I try to live with it.”

Rather than trampling the rights and health of women for political gain, Texas legislators should renew their commitment to women’s health and take extra steps to protect Latinas because of the particularly significant barriers they face in accessing care.

- Jessica González-Rojas & Nancy Northup

A recent human rights investigation by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has found that the deep cuts to family planning services enacted by Texas politicians in 2011has severely limited—and in cases like Daniela’s, completely eliminated—women’s access to cancer screenings, contraception, and other essential health care services.

Our findings show a myriad of persistent barriers, such as immigration status, transportation, and a dearth of culturally competent care, are denying women across Texas—particularly those living in the Rio Grande Valley—their fundamental human right to affordable reproductive health care.

The toll on Texas Latinas, who make up 40 percent of women in the state, is undeniable. Texas Latinas report higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, and are more likely to die from cancer than Latinas nationally. Nearly half of Latinas of reproductive age in Texas are uninsured, many of them because they are barred from insurance programs due to immigration status. Also, Latinas are by far the most likely group of women in Texas to not have a personal doctor and to have foregone a doctor’s visit in the past year due to cost.

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Because of the struggles to access care, Latinas in Texas face higher rates of unintended pregnancy, cervical and breast cancer, and sexually transmitted infections. We hear story after story of the tough choices Latinas make for reproductive health care. One woman living in the Valley, Liria, told us women often go hungry to get contraception. “Either they eat or buy birth control, but not both,” she said.

Rosa, another Texas Latina, shared how these barriers harm not just her own health, but also the well-being of her family. Rosa spent a year in chronic pain because she couldn’t afford the medication to treat her uterine condition. “(It) makes you feel like you’re in the desert, a desert where there’s no help.”

Adding insult to injury, Texas politicians haven’t stopped at just slashing funding for women’s health care. These devastating impacts have been compounded by extreme measures aimed at restricting women’s access to safe and legal abortion. Such measures have already forced more than a dozen reproductive health care providers—including in the Valley—to immediately stop providing that service. Limiting access to safe abortion could not come at a worse time for communities experiencing a rise in unintended pregnancy as a result of funding cuts to family planning.

Although the Texas legislature re-appropriated funds to women’s preventive care in 2013, the repairing the damage done to women’s reproductive health safety net will take years.

Rather than trampling the rights and health of women for political gain, Texas legislators should renew their commitment to women’s health and take extra steps to protect Latinas because of the particularly significant barriers they face in accessing care.

Latinas and immigrant women across the state are uniting to support one another and protect the health of their sisters, aunts, daughters, and friends. Women like Lucy Félix, a National Latina Institute educator and advocate, who is training other Latinas to teach their communities about reproductive health, or Paula Saldaña, who continues to educate Latinas about reproductive health on a voluntary basis after her paid position was eliminated, are driving the change. Earlier this year, a group of Latinas traveled to Austin from the Valley, some of them even risking detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to demand that their legislators protect the health of their sisters, aunts, daughters and friends.

The consequences of this health care crisis facing Texas Latinas paints a bleak picture. But, it’s brave women like Daniela, Liria, Rosa, Lucy and Paula that foreshadow the future that is coming. A future where every Latina has the reproductive care she needs, for her own health, the health of her family, and the health of her community.

Nancy Northup is the President of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global human rights organization that uses constitutional and international law to secure women's reproductive freedom.

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Jessica González-Rojas is the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. 

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