Skip to main content

Mother and daughter Mia Williams and Nia Jones, in Houston, Texas, on May 6, 2022. Jones is the founder of Social Justice Solutions, an organization centred on empowering and protecting Black women.Annie Mulligan/The Globe and Mail

In print, the Texas laws banning abortion are colour blind. The state’s Heartbeat Act, which has banned most abortions since last September, contains no language about race, ethnicity or social class.

But at Fund Texas Choice, one of 11 groups in the state that financially support women securing abortions, fully 73 per cent of those seeking help are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

Those groups, along with people and residents of rural areas have been “disproportionately harmed by SB8,” the HeartBeat Act, said Sahra Harvin, program manager with Fund Texas Choice, which helps cover the costs for women to travel for abortions.

The Texas abortion law has made the state a legislative pioneer in the U.S. The act, which bans abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected, has also made Texas into a real-life preview of what may come later this year in more than two dozen states across the U.S. if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade this summer, as a draft decision published last week suggests it intends to do.

It’s a preview that raises questions about how heavily the weight of abortion bans will fall on the country’s disadvantaged. Before the introduction of the Heartbeat Act, Black and Hispanic people in Texas had two-and-a-half times more abortions than white people. Countrywide, 38 per cent of U.S. abortion patients were Black and 21 per cent Hispanic, according to 2019 statistics. A third were white.

Signs direct visitors into the parking lot of Houston’s largest Planned Parenthood building on May 6, 2022.Annie Mulligan/The Globe and Mail

For racialized communities, the new abortion laws have raised worry that enforcement will unfairly target non-white women while the cost of travelling to other states for procedures will most hurt those with more strained finances. Black households in Texas make 60 per cent of the amount white households make. Hispanic households are only slightly better off.

The Heartbeat Act “is put in place to disenfranchise people of colour,” said Candice Matthews, executive director at the Children of Diversity Foster Adoption Agency.

She knows of two women who recently got abortions, one forced to travel to Louisiana, another to Miami. The woman who went to Florida had been raped. “The majority of your white women have financial resources. What about the African Americans that don’t?” Dr. Matthews asked.

In Texas, however, at least some worries have yet to materialize. The Heartbeat Act employs a novel enforcement action in which citizens are empowered to sue those providing abortions or otherwise aiding women who obtain a procedure. Only two known suits have been filed, both by disbarred out-of-state lawyers against a Texas abortion provider who publicly disclosed completing an unlawful abortion.

The financial burden, too, has so far been alleviated by generosity. Since September, so many donations have poured in to Texas that organizations like Lilith Fund, which covers the cost of abortions for people in need, have been able to help anyone who expresses a need. “We are funding almost every single person who calls us,” said executive director Amanda Beatriz Williams.

What’s happening to Roe v. Wade and U.S. abortion rights? The Supreme Court leak and reaction so far

Roughly half the previous number of abortions continue to be conducted in Texas, as women complete the procedures before the beginning of cardiac activity, at around the six-week mark.

State statistics show that in the first month under the new law, the profile of people obtaining those abortions were similar to the previous year. That indicates “those who are able to get abortions in Texas, in terms of their racial and ethnic identity, are pretty similar between those two time periods,” said Kari White, a University of Texas at Austin scholar who is principal investigator at the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, which has tracked the impact of the abortion legislation.

In other words, at the moment “we do not have clear evidence” to say the burden of the law has been unequal. For those with lesser means, “the financial hurdle is lower with the donations that are coming,” she said.

But that situation may prove temporary. If the Roe v. Wade decision falls and other parts of the U.S. ban abortion – 26 states are seen as certain or likely to do so – Texas may not see the same national outpouring of donated funds. “Health care shouldn’t depend on the generosity of others,” said Prof. White.

The demand for assistance in Texas has already outstripped the ability of some organizations to help. Fund Texas Choice receives 200 to 300 calls a month. It can only help about 100. “There’s just not enough hours in the day to return every call we get,” said Ms. Harvin. “We now serve the number of people in a week that we used to in a month.”

An out-of-state abortion procedure typically costs between $550 and $1,300. Travel and child-care costs can add to that considerably. Earlier this year, Buckle Bunnies Fund, which helps fund abortions, paid for one procedure whose costs reached US$13,000.

“As it gets further into the pregnancy, it gets so much more expensive,” said founder Makayla Montoya Frazier. More women are obtaining later-term abortions because of the complexities of arranging travel and weeks-long waiting lists at clinics in nearby states that have been overwhelmed by women from Texas.

Even among those who aren’t pregnant, the law has created fear. “I’m just really scared,” said Nia Jones, a young Black activist who founded Social Justice Solutions, a group that also calls itself Hoochies of Houston.

“I could be pregnant right now and not know – and it would be too late to do anything about it.”

Her mother, Mia Williams, previously worked for the Texas Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement – but that office was defunded in 2018 and shut down. That has affected the state’s ability to track the impact of abortion law on disadvantaged communities, Ms. Williams said.

Texas already has the highest percentage of people without health care insurance in the U.S. Black women in Texas are nearly three times more likely than other groups to die during pregnancy and childbirth. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, a Texas “trigger law” will come into force that goes beyond the Heartbeat Act to ban nearly all abortions, a prospect that has further heightened concern about its impact.

“I’m very concerned that all the efforts that we’ve made to reduce maternal mortalities and morbidities will be undone,” said Shawn Thierry, a state representative who has spent years lobbying for greater racial awareness in health care.

'We got some jet fuel now,' says Carroll G. Robinson, a professor at Texas Southern University who is currently campaigning to be the next Texas Democratic Party Chair.Annie Mulligan/The Globe and Mail

Republicans have a lock on power in Texas. But Ms. Thierry’s party sees the abortion issue as offensive to enough people that it could affect the political fortunes of former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is running for governor. At a rally in Houston on Saturday, Mr. O’Rourke accused Governor Greg Abbott, the Republican incumbent, of “attacking the people of Texas” with anti-abortion laws.

“For the longest time, we just had no jet fuel in the party,” said Carroll Robinson, chairman of the Coalition of Black Democrats, who is running to chair the party in Texas.

“We got some jet fuel now.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.