Above: State Representative Sarah Davis (right) speaks at the Capitol in 2016.
It was a Friday night in May 2019 when a six-hour House debate over a reproductive health bill ended the relative calm of Texas’ last legislative session. The measure, Senate Bill 22, proposed blocking local governments from partnering with abortion providers and their affiliates.
Houston Representative Sarah Davis, a Republican, fought to stop it. During a break in the debate, she met with Democrats to strategize against the bill backed by her own party. “This bill is about politics,” Davis said on the House floor that evening. “It is not about good policy, and it is not about improving public health.” Taxpayer dollars were already blocked from funding abortions; SB 22 would end cancer screenings, sex education programs, teen pregnancy prevention programs, and more. She implored Republicans to consider the Texans who relied on those health services and would lose access to care. “Please think about doing the right thing today, not what is most politically expedient for you.”
The bill passed, with Davis the only Republican to vote against.
Davis, who lost her reelection bid in November, was the most moderate Republican representative, and the only member of the Texas GOP to support abortion rights. A breast cancer survivor and outspoken advocate for women’s health and vaccines, she was a regular target of far-right anti-abortion and anti-vaccine groups, even though she fell along party lines on most other issues. Republican Governor Greg Abbott financially backed Davis’ primary challenger in 2018 in a failed attempt to oust her. As chair of the powerful appropriations subcommittee overseeing the health care budget, Davis worked with progressive advocates on funding and oversight of the state’s women’s health programs. She grilled state officials over their failed multi-million-dollar contracts with the anti-abortion Heidi Group, which was tapped to replace Planned Parenthood in state women’s health programs and later investigated by the state for misuse of taxpayer funds.
But Davis’ moderate Houston district made her a top target for Democrats in their effort to flip the Texas House this year. Davis first won her seat, House District 134, in 2010, but the district went for Hillary Clinton by 15 points in 2016. Democrats’ broader effort failed: They flipped just one state House seat and lost another, resulting in a net gain of zero. The party’s lone success? HD-134. Now, as lawmakers head into their first session since the coronavirus pandemic began, reproductive health advocates worry about the impact of losing Davis as a powerful ally on women’s health in the majority party. Davis did not respond to requests for comment.
“It was a particularly devastating loss for us because we have a Republican-controlled House and she was seen as a leader across the aisle,” says Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the group’s political arm, which endorsed Davis in the general election. Democrats “are not in the same rooms that Davis had access to,” she says. The “Democratic scorecard” may be the same as last session, with 67 members, but on issues of reproductive health care, “we’re down a seat that held critical leadership positions,” says Limon-Mercado. “We are actually coming into a more conservative House.”
Reproductive health advocates are preparing for a painful legislative session amid coronavirus-induced deficits and with anti-abortion groups emboldened by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. In the spring, state leaders ordered most agencies to cut their budgets by 5 percent. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) initially included a nearly $4 million reduction to its women’s health programs as part of its proposed cuts, while maintaining millions in funding for an anti-abortion program—a move Davis criticized at the time. The agency walked back the proposal, but its budget request released in late October for the next two years includes family planning cuts at a time advocates say the state needs more investment in these services, not less. Texas already had the highest uninsured rate in the country, before the pandemic.
“We are very well aware of the economic challenges that we are going to face in developing a budget based on our revenue projections, but we also are really, really mindful that the rates of unemployed and uninsured Texans are rising,” says Kami Geoffray, head of Every Body Texas, which administers the Title X grant statewide. “So a key issue heading into session is ensuring that there is adequate funding for safety net health care services. And by adequate, we mean more, not less.”
The state health agency acknowledges an increase in demand for these services in its legislative appropriations request, but while HHSC is projecting more clients in its Family Planning Program, it reduced the average monthly cost per client by more than $65, without explanation. Meanwhile, the request asks for a potential increase in funding for the Alternatives to Abortion program, which has received at least $170 million in state funds since 2006. For now, advocates say they’re waiting to see who will be making budget decisions in Davis’ place.
Democrat Ann Johnson, elected to replace Davis, argues that her former opponent and representative’s influence on women’s health is outweighed by her other more conservative positions on guns, immigration, climate change, and more. “She was ineffective in stopping the attacks,” Johnson, also a cancer survivor, says of GOP anti-abortion bills and measures like SB22 that ultimately passed. “Her position of voting against these things did not move the majority or change the outcome.”
But reproductive health advocates say the next member, most likely a Republican, who leads HHSC appropriations won’t have the same record or knowledge of women’s health programs. “Obviously hindsight is 2020, and we knew Democratic groups had their plan to flip the House and be able to elect a Democratic speaker, and we would have been with that,” says Limon-Mercado. “[But] partisanship alone does not protect reproductive rights, especially in a state like Texas.”