A version of this story ran in the April 2015 issue.
Dina Nuñez, a 51-year-old mother of three and human rights organizer, used to go to the Planned Parenthood clinic in her hometown of Brownsville for her yearly checkup. The clinic closed in 2012 because of a $70 million budget cut in 2011 to the state’s family planning program that provides low-cost or free birth control, cancer screenings and other preventive care for uninsured and underinsured women.
Because of the closure, and after encountering long wait times at the remaining clinics in Brownsville, Nuñez missed a yearly screening. She finally found a clinic that could see her right away in McAllen, an hour’s drive from her home. When she went for her appointment, she received some bad news. “My outcomes didn’t turn out well,” she said. She had an abnormal Pap smear that required more testing. Nuñez made the trip two more times for follow-up appointments, costing her even more in gas money and hours lost at work. Before, at Planned Parenthood, her health screenings had been free. Now she pays $30 for every a visit in addition to the gas money it takes to get to the clinic.
In the Rio Grande Valley, where it already was difficult to find women’s health services, it has now become even harder. The funding cuts resulted in the loss of more than 50 clinics statewide, and at least nine in the Valley. Despite some funding being restored in 2013, not every clinic has reopened. Many of them can’t because of lengthy start-up times and high fixed costs.
For undocumented women who don’t qualify for publicly funded programs such as Medicaid, health screenings are difficult to come by. A proposed consolidation of the state’s three women’s health programs has providers and advocates wary of restructuring such a fragile safety net, and a budget proposal aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood would jeopardize a state breast and cervical cancer program for low-income women.
Abortion access was dramatically reduced in October 2013 by Texas’ omnibus abortion bill. Full implementation of the law, which is pending in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, will leave no abortion clinics in the Rio Grande Valley or in West Texas.
Since finding the clinic in McAllen, Nuñez has encouraged her friends to schedule their appointments the same day, so they can carpool to save money on gas.
But women in the Rio Grande Valley aren’t standing idly by, said community health care worker Paula Saldaña. They are organizing around kitchen tables, in community centers and in churches, educating one another on their remaining options for health care.
Saldaña is an activist with the Latina Advocacy Network at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. She hosts reproductive health education classes in border cities and remote colonias often neglected by the state of Texas. She teaches Valley women how to give themselves breast exams, answers their basic health care questions and connects them to the few service providers that still exist in the border region.
She also encourages women to get involved politically. Saldaña’s organization, which has had a presence in Texas for nearly a decade, encourages its clients who are directly affected by the Legislature’s politicking to fight for increased health care access.
“I’ve seen the transformation of a woman that wouldn’t even open the door [to the community group] to a woman that is now talking to legislators, lawmakers, and organizing rallies,” Saldaña said. “This fight was already fought many, many years ago. Now, we’re needing to fight again.”