How Texas Abortion Volunteers Cope After SB 8
Amanda Bennett was in the Texas Legislature last May, the day Senate Bill 8, almost completely banning abortions, was passed by the state House of Representatives. Bennett, a twenty-nine-year-old pro-choice activist, had gone to Capitol Hill to protest the legislation. She recalled the disturbing calm that day – there was not much debate about the law, which prohibits abortions if fetal heart activity is detected (from six weeks pregnant) and does not make no exceptions for survivors of rape or incest. Many observers believed the law would soon be struck down by the courts. “It didn’t sound like Wendy Davis’ filibuster at all,” Bennett said, referring to Texas state senator’s 1pm attempt to block SB 5, a previous anti-abortion bill. , in 2013. “It has just passed quietly. Honestly, I think even some Republicans thought it was purely symbolic. But, nearly four months later, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the ban, and having an abortion in Texas, which was already extremely difficult, has become nearly 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 few years after moving to the city from Chicago to study public policy at the University of Texas. At the time, 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 get in and out of facilities. , who are often assaulted by demonstrators. “Speaking to him, I realized it was luck that I had always had access to birth control, and that my birth control had never failed,” Bennett recalls. At first, she worked part-time for Fund Texas Choice, a group that helps people pay for travel expenses, such as bus or plane tickets, to get to abortion clinics in the inside and outside the state. She soon realized, however, that she wanted to do something more practical, so she signed up to be a driver with the Bridge Collective.
The number of abortion clinics in Texas has been on the decline for a long time, due to targeted restrictions on abortion providers, or so-called TRAP laws, which impose difficult standards that often result in the closure of clinics. (These range from building specifications – corridor widths or operating room dimensions – to requirements for locations and relationships with nearby hospitals, which can be particularly difficult for rural providers.) In recent years, Texas has grown from over 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 residents need help getting to their dates. “If you’re sedated you can’t drive yourself,” Bennett explained, adding that “all appointments are during the work day and Austin has terrible public transportation.”
Bennett’s driver training took place over a weekend and the volunteers included men, women and non-binary people. In their normal lives, they were social workers, small business owners, restaurant workers, students, and retirees. (Bennett works at a digital security company and has flexible hours, which gives him time to volunteer.) The interns were taught the different types of dates they could take their passengers to: ultrasound and consultation, which is required by Texas law before a patient can have an abortion; medical abortion, which usually means going to the clinic, where a doctor will administer the first pill, and then stopping at a pharmacy afterwards to pick up an additional prescription; and the in-clinic procedure, a surgical abortion that can sometimes take two days. They were also coached in empathy. “Everyone who has an abortion thinks about the experience differently,” Bennett said. “Some people might talk about their ‘baby’. Others speak of their “pregnancy”. ”Drivers learn to reflect the language of their passengers.
After the training, Bennett began to drive. Once a month, she would get into her Ford hatchback and take someone to an abortion appointment. The passengers were surprisingly diverse: middle-aged mothers from the Austin area; youth in central Texas; soldiers from a military base near Killeen, who cannot get the procedure on the base due to restrictions in the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for most abortions. “Sometimes people, when they do this, imagine that I’m going to help young women,” Bennett said. “But, really, people of all reproductive ages have abortions.”
Conversations in the car vary. “With some people it’s like an Uber ride,” Bennett said – there’s a brief exchange, then they ride in silence. For others, it is the other way around. “I could be the first non-judgmental person they can talk to outside of the clinic,” she explained. Bennett has heard his passengers tell stories of rape, medical problems, failed relationships and child rearing. (Two-thirds of patients who request abortions already have children.) She also hears about the dreams and goals of her passengers. “Some people are talking about finally making a decision for themselves,” she said, “or putting themselves first for a change.”
Money is almost always an issue. Abortions cost at least five hundred dollars, and insurance in Texas does not cover the procedure. Many people fail to have an abortion because they cannot find the money. “The answer to that is, ‘Well, a child costs a lot more than an abortion,” Bennett said. “But that doesn’t make five hundred dollars materialize when you need it.” His passengers sometimes ask him to stop at an ATM and often seem anxious because they are running out of money.
In 2019, Bennett became a core member of the Bridge Collective, meaning she started training and coordinating other drivers. Last August, there was a surge in activity, as patients rushed to clinics before SB 8 went into effect on September 1. Since then, the core members of the Bridge Collective have strived to find their next chapter. Bennett said the calls for errands haven’t completely ceased, but being an abortion driver is now much more complicated: it meant taking a short trip to the Austin area, but now it may involve d ‘take someone to and from the airport, or drive six hours to Oklahoma, then stay overnight in a hotel. Additionally, the Bridge Collective has received hundreds of requests for Plan B pills and pregnancy tests. Its members have started delivering these and other safer sex supplies to people in the Austin area, and the group plans to expand the service to college campuses and other cities in Texas. “We’re just exhausted,” Bennett said. “But we will continue to help people. Because people need help.
Bennett has also responded to calls from well-meaning residents of the Blue State looking to provide help in Texas. She suggests they look closer to home. “They’ll say things like, ‘I wish I could do the kind of work you do, but I live in New York.’ It’s like people in New York City still need help getting an abortion! Can you walk into a drugstore and get abortion pills? Even in New York, the answer is no, which means abortion drivers are in demand.