Before I met with Texas State Representative Dan Flynn last month during Texas’ pro-choice lobby day, I truly believed that even the most passionate anti-choice conservative couldn’t look me in the face and tell me they didn’t really care whether I got the reproductive health care I needed. Who would seriously tell me their religious beliefs are more important than making sure hundreds of thousands of women just like me—women with high-risk HPV--don’t develop cervical cancer?
But like I said, that was before I sat in front of Rep. Flynn, in his Austin office next to his model airplanes and elect-Dan-Flynn gum, and told him how I’d lost my job and my health insurance and needed regular, affordable pap smears to keep an eye on my pre-cancerous cervical dysplasia. I told him Planned Parenthood could provide low-cost paps, breast exams and contraceptives to keep me healthy despite my lack of insurance, and I believed they should continue to be funded by government family planning dollars. He scoffed, waving around a handful of papers—spreadsheets and maps, it looked like—and told me that Planned Parenthood was nothing but a tax-evading abortion machine (he knew because he used to be a bank examiner and had heard some things from some people) and there were so many other options besides Planned Parenthood in Texas. I should and could go to one of those, he told me, so we could spread some of the wealth around to these smaller providers. It would be very easy, he said.
I asked him if he could give me that list he had in his hand, the long list of places I could get low-cost reproductive health care without insurance near my home in Dallas. He glanced at the list and rattled off some names, something about Dallas Emergency Services and Dallas County Hospital District. He didn’t exactly wait for me to get out my pen and pad. I filed out of Flynn’s office with the rest of the women I’d teamed up with for lobby day feeling surprised and disappointed. But I still wanted (needed!) to know where those low-cost health centers were that Flynn had referenced, because I knew the Texas Legislature to be hell-bent on cutting the family planning funds that keep Planned Parenthood and clinics like it afloat.
Planned Parenthood or not, I’d still need well-woman exams, birth control pills and suchlike, and I wanted to know where I could get these things if I had to spend weeks or months scraping by on a freelancer’s salary without health insurance. So here’s what I did: I spent my own time, money and energy trying to find a health care clinic that anti-choice conservatives, legislators and organizations would approve of—namely, to find a Federally Qualified Health Center or “look-alike” center that, by virtue of federal grant funding, cannot provide abortion services except in cases of rape, incest or threat to a mother’s life, as dictated by the 36-year-old Hyde Amendment. (I know—that amendment also applies to Planned Parenthood, which only uses private, non-taxpayer funds for its abortion services at separate, privately-funded locations, but we’re talking about conservative ideology, not logic, so just go with me here.)
But I thought, I’ll play this game. If it turns out I was wrong—and I really thought maybe I could be, because how could it seriously happen that “pro-life” Texans didn’t want me to get cancer screenings?—I would be the first to admit that you can take Planned Parenthood out of the equation and still find easily accessible, low-cost reproductive health care in a sprawling metropolitan area like Dallas. But I wasn’t wrong. I was, maddeningly, right. Considering the rate at which conservatives are defunding family planning in my state, and for that matter, across the country, I’m very sorry about that. All of this is an ideological, not fiscally conservative, battle. After all, family planning saves taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent. But I was trying to work around family planning dollars, since conservatives seem to think they go straight to gleeful baby-killing cocktail hours, and stick with straight-up FQHC's. If they’re lucky, Dallas women will be told what I was told: an appointment at an anti-choicer-approved FQHC might be available in May if I called back in three weeks—at a location two cities away and five miles from the closest bus stop.
Or women can call Planned Parenthood, like I did, at lunch time on a Friday, and be told that an afternoon appointment including a full pelvic and breast exam is available that same day for about $100 at a location a few yards from a major public transportation hub that I could easily reach in a half-hour or so. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, I first had to do a little divination to figure out where exactly anti-choicers wanted me to get my health care (besides not Planned Parenthood), since I couldn’t actually get any of them to pass along that list of their approved providers to me. First thing in the morning, the day after I met with Rep. Dan Flynn, I called and e-mailed his office. After a day or so, they got back to me and advised I contact the anti-choice religious group Texas Alliance For Life for a list of alternatives to Planned Parenthood. I e-mailed the Alliance on March 10:
Hi, TX Alliance for Life - I was referred to you by the office of Rep. Dan Flynn. I’m looking for a comprehensive list of alternatives to Planned Parenthood–when I visited with Rep. Flynn this week he referenced a document that appeared to be just such a thing. Karah Carr, a legislative aide for Rep. Flynn, tells me the Alliance for Life provided it. I was wondering if I could get a copy of the same list? Thanks! Andrea
So, what’s today? April the something? I haven’t heard back from the Alliance yet. I’ve even been Tweeting at both the Alliance and Rep. Flynn asking for that list of providers that can they believe can give me the same or better care as Planned Parenthood.
I know Flynn and his conservative counterparts were very busy over the weekend deciding which Texans deserve health care (hint: it’s not women of reproductive age) but I hoped that at least in Flynn’s passion for defunding family planning, he’d develop a passion for helping women find health care providers he approved of. I was wrong about that one.
I posted about my travails on my personal blog, where I have a number of anti-choice trolls who are always more than happy to share their wealth of knowledge with me. There, someone from another anti-choice group eventually commented and told me they wouldn’t mind if I went to a Federally Qualified Health Center or “look-alike” center that offers sliding fee scales. And look, said the "pro-life" Texan, there are seven such centers in Dallas! So that’s what I did: Last Friday morning, I went out of my way to find a doctor based on the fact that some people have a personal dislike of Planned Parenthood for providing abortions--a safe, common and legal medical procedure.
It hardly felt like easy-access, low-cost health care. It felt more like coercion, and it was a hassle, and it forced me to make decisions about my own body and health care based on what other people—people who never met me, who are not medical professionals—think I should be doing based on their religious beliefs.
I found that list of FQHC’s—I am privileged to have a flexible work schedule, home phone and home internet access, so I didn’t have to take time off work to go to the public library and use a pay phone, and I didn’t have to sneak around on a conservative, religious or abusive family or partner--and started making calls. Most places I telephoned did not provide reproductive health care and instead focused on providing low-income housing, job training and addiction-recovery programs. A homeless shelter on the FQHC list did tell me I could get a free pap smear if I could prove I was homeless. I then got sidetracked looking into something called Project Access, a low-cost program that helps uninsured people who don’t qualify for Medicaid—but because I made more than about $20,000 last year as an unmarried woman without kids, I don’t qualify for that, either.
And the Texas Breast And Cervical Cancer Services, which is supposed to provide low-cost screenings for Texas women? It referred me to Planned Parenthood. So that was a no-go.
Back to the phones: a clinic close-ish to my home had no receptionist and a full voicemail. Another receptionist laughed at me because I’d been given the number for the county hospital front desk and told me to call a place called Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic. When I called Los Barrios, I got an individual’s voice mail and had to take down another number to a switchboard, after which I was transferred to another voicemail that said the women’s health care folks would get back to me in 24 hours if I left my phone number. They’ve yet to call me. Later in the morning, I finally got through to the Los Barrios clinic in Grand Prairie, which is a western suburb of Dallas. They had appointments open in May, potentially, if I could call them back the morning of April 25th. There, a pap smear would cost me as little as $30, but maybe more depending on my income.
I made my last call to a Planned Parenthood clinic in central Dallas. The receptionist there told me they could schedule me that same afternoon for a full pelvic and breast exam. It’d be about $100, but there was a sliding scale. Without Planned Parenthood and family planning funding that funds actual medical centers—not crisis pregnancy centers or adoption agencies, as may happen in Texas after this year’s budget--poor, uninsured and under-insured women in my city do not generally have access to quality reproductive health care in any real way. They sit on waiting lists for weeks and months, and that’s if they can take time off work to do what I did: spend a morning surfing the internet, finding phone numbers and addresses of health clinics and hospitals, calling them only to be put on hold, laughed at or hung up on, and if they do find the a clinic, leaving a message in hopes of getting a return call to schedule appointment.
I’m not saying I tried my absolute hardest to find a reproductive health care provider that Texas anti-choice conservatives approve of. I could have called back the clinics I had to leave messages at, the ones that promised they’d get back to me in 24 hours. I could have spent another morning calling clinics in Fort Worth, Denton, Waco or Oklahoma City, to see if one of them could get me in for an appointment in the next two months. Of course, to visit those places, I’d be spending in gas what I’d be spending to go to a local Planned Parenthood here in Dallas. So there wouldn’t really be any money savings, there’d just be conscience-savings on the part of people who don’t really want to hear or care about my personal health unless I’m pregnant or might be pregnant.
Anti-choicers like Flynn and “pro-life” activists want me and women like me to jump through these hoops not because it's medically safer for us to go somewhere other than Planned Parenthood, but because they don't want women hanging out with anybody who provides a safe, legal and common medical procedure. And for what it's worth, I imagine the anti-choice folks who told me to seek out an FQHC should know this: FQHC's do provide referrals to abortion providers at their discretion, even though they don't provide the procedure on-site.
Of course, once you get to the next level, here--after anti-choicers have first told you they don't want to fund the abortion industry with taxpayer dollars--then it magically becomes about some pseudo- socialist ideal about spreading the health care access around, just like Rep. Dan Flynn told me in his office last month. Suddenly, all those things they told you about the abortionists and the dead babies goes out the window, because really, it's about making sure the little guys get their fair slice of the pie.
Nobody knows these two excuses—barring taxpayer funding for abortion and spreading the health care wealth around--are straight-up lies better than the anti-choice movement members themselves. There's a reason why anti-choice legislators and activists are so strong on these two talking points: they're simply, plainly, not true. Taxpayer funding for abortion does not exist. It hasn't existed for thirty-six years thanks to the Hyde Amendment. And we need only to look to Nebraska, where five babies have died so far this year because conservative lawmakers do not allow hospitals to care for undocumented immigrants, to know that spreading the health care wealth around to everyone is a total farce. Besides, wasn’t Jesus a capitalist, anyway?