The issue of reproductive healthcare in East Texas weighs heavily in local politics, education and faith, especially when it comes to abortion.
In an October 2019 article, The Texas Tribune noted that a growing number of town councils in East Texas banned abortion, declaring their towns sanctuary cities for the unborn. In rebuttal, billboards paid for by the Lilith Fund appeared August 2020 in Carthage, Waskom, Rusk and Marshall with the message “Abortion is a Blessing”. Vandals defaced the sign in Marshall, though no charges were ever filed.
And this month, after a five year court battle, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission now bars Medicaid patients from using Planned Parenthood as a healthcare provider.
Thousands of Planned Parenthood’s patients who rely on Medicaid have until February 3rd to find a new source for reproductive health care despite the fact that Medicaid is already prohibited from being used to cover abortion services, except for cases of sexual assault or certain specific medical conditions.
Autumn Keiser, director of marketing and communications at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said this policy blocks access to basic healthcare needs.
“Abortion stigma is hurtful for pregnant folks who are looking for abortion services, but it is even impacting folks who want to seek reproductive healthcare.”
Keiser said patients are experiencing waiting periods of three to six months to set an appointment at other healthcare providers.
“[During] that three-month gap you may run out of birth control, and Medicaid won’t allow doctors to prescribe it early. Lots of folks are going to be high and dry without any sort of birth control coverage.”
The same day The Tyler Loop published this story, The Texas Tribune reported the U.S. Supreme Court nullified rulings from lower courts that approved a ban on most abortions in Texas early in the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite evidence of our state’s polarized viewpoints and abortion stigma, some individuals are willing to discuss their personal experiences with abortion publicly.
The following stories feature three East Texans who have had first-hand experience in choosing whether or not to have an abortion and the ideologies they have formed since.
Through vulnerability and bravery, these individuals are allowing their stories to be told, providing local perspectives rarely made public. The Tyler Loop applauds their courage and contribution.
“I wish people could understand that abortion is not a political issue. It really is just a very personal issue.”
Dr. Grace English is an Internal Medicine Primary Care provider at Christus Trinity Clinic in Tyler and a faith leader. She founded CARE (Christ-centered Abortion Recovery and Education), a Tyler based non-profit which provides faith-centered Bible studies and events to East Texans who have had an abortion.
We began our interview asking Dr. English about her activist role. “It’s funny that I was described as a pro-life activist,” she said. “Looking at those terms, definitely I am pro-life; the activist part of that title seems to give a negative connotation. I became involved the day I had my abortion, when I was 18 years old. This was in 1985. I thought that was the answer to my unplanned pregnancy. I chose to have the abortion, and I believed that my life was going to carry on and I never would have any problems from it, but that definitely proved out to be not true.”
Over the next few years, Dr. English developed symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “I had not realized at the time that all that behavior that drove me down to the pit of hell, basically over the next four to five years, it really was stemming from that decision to abort my child,” she said.
“At that time I didn’t know that and so, several years later, I hit rock bottom. I finally became a believer and I thought to myself at the time that God forgives all sins; I’m fine,” Dr. English said. “The abortion, you know, I regretted that. I made that choice, but I never really allowed myself to even think about it.”
Several years after her abortion Dr. English married and became a mother. “It wasn’t until I started having my own living children that I finally realized that the abortion really needed to be dealt with,” she said. “It brought a lot of pain in my life, but it was stuff that I really had to go back and process.”
“I actually gave identity to the baby that I had and was able to name my baby,” she said. “I finally felt like I was free from the guilt and the shame of choosing to end my baby’s life. I started realizing how much that abortion had impacted who I was as a person, how I felt about myself.”
“I knew that I could not mother or parent my children the way that they needed to be raised unless I truly had freedom and healing from that choice that I made years ago,” said Dr. English. Because of that, in 2008 she began teaching Bible study for women in East Texas who had abortions.
“Abortion is not something that people want to share with just anybody. We started doing the studies, and these women came in that had very similar stories that really had kept that secret for so long,” she said. “Sometimes not even their spouses knew that they had an abortion. Women who were in their 60s, who carried that secret for 30 years and tried to suppress the whole fact of the matter of what happened.”
“Just walking with these women through the years and helping them understand, and so we guide them through their healing. They get to a place where they’re reunited with their baby. I know it sounds really strange, especially if you’ve not had an abortion or if you’ve healed from it: to give a memorial to these babies who actually have a soul. It’s great closure for them. It’s not an easy process, but I’ve seen the pain and the hurt that it has caused in people’s lives.”
“That’s why I am so pro-life,” she said. “I understand truly what women go through when they have had an abortion. I wish people could understand that abortion is not a political issue. It really is just a very personal issue.”
“If somebody had sat me down when I was 18 and explained to me what I was truly deciding to do and how that would impact my life, I think I would have made a better choice. To me, pro-life means that you are against abortion. I want to say that I’m a voice for life, an ally for not just the unborn, but also for the mother and the father who’s involved, because you’re talking about their own flesh and blood. It’s their future generation that you’re talking about,” she said.
Dr. English continued, “even if that baby is not convenient for them, even that baby is unwanted, that baby has been created. And who am I to take away life? God’s really the only one that can do that. You know, I’m not sitting out there on the corner with an abortion on a poster to get my point across. That isn’t any good for anybody, and I think it hurts the pro-life cause. You know, pro-lifers can come across as very judgmental.
“The pro-lifers I love who are very genuine and sincere in their hearts for why they’re pro-life, they don’t do that, because that’s not bringing people closer to you. It’s kind of like further pushing people away,” she said.
“Even if you talk to a young mom that chooses to still have an abortion, even though you’ve walked with them, you’ve talked with them, we’re not going to judge them. We’re going to be there for you, even if you choose to not have this baby, we still love you. You still mean something to us because we’re going to be here for you when you realize,” she said. “We have a great pregnancy resource center in town that advises women and dads to come in and get the help that they need with their baby that they weren’t planning to have in their life.
“And you know, sex education is very important,” she said. “I think young people need to understand what happens when you have sex out of marriage in different scenarios. This is not just for young people, this is for full blown adults. When you are having sex outside of God’s design, there are going to be things that are going to happen that are not ideal.”
“I feel like if I had not had an abortion, then I probably would’ve left this world, because life just wouldn’t have been worth living. I wouldn’t have been able to mentally make it.”
Our second interviewee has asked to remain anonymous. The name Samantha is an alias.
Born and raised in East Texas, Samantha is a young adult who is currently saving to attend college. She enjoys traveling and the indie band alt-J.
Samantha says that she has been pro-choice since high school. “I always thought that abortion is an option that anyone should be able to have, but I didn’t really understand how important it actually is to be involved and not just be passive about it until I was 22,” she said.
“As soon as I found out I was pregnant I sobbed for days on end. I was not okay,” she said. “I had just moved away from where I grew up, I was unemployed. I grew up in poverty and had a poor support system. I felt incredibly alone and once I found out, I didn’t know what to do. So, I went by myself to one of the pregnancy crisis centers to get a free sonogram.”
Samantha had no health insurance and wasn’t sure how far along she was. “They told me I was eight weeks and they kept pressuring me to keep my pregnancy. They asked me a lot of religious and personal questions. They really condemned abortion the whole time. But, I wasn’t going to let them make me feel bad,” she said.
Samantha reached out to a family member for support. “They made the whole situation much worse for me,” she said. “They did not support me, and they told people when I had asked them not to. They told me I would regret it every day of my life. In the end, I had to lie to the people I loved. Even my boyfriend said I was killing our baby.”
“That was very triggering for me because I already felt guilty. I had never felt more suicidal than whenever I was pregnant.” Samantha had supportive friends who lived only a few hours away. They drove her four hours away to a clinic to have her abortion. “They were really there for me,”she said, “and made me feel not so alienated.”
“It was really difficult to get the abortion because the law requires that you have to have two appointments,” she said At her first appointment Samantha received a sonogram and filled out paperwork. That is when she found out she was actually 12 weeks pregnant.
“This meant I could not have a medication abortion, but I had to have a surgical abortion,” she said. “I felt heartbroken and devastated because I thought it would be more difficult. I was so terrified. The night before I cried and stayed up all night long.” Samantha said she was so scared she couldn’t sleep.
“Honestly it was a huge blessing that the surgical abortion was not a bad experience,” she said. “It was super quick. I would honestly recommend it to anyone. Afterwards I felt so much relief.”
“I feel like if I had not had an abortion, then I probably would’ve left this world, because life just wouldn’t have been worth living. I wouldn’t have been able to mentally make it,” she said. “I’ve never been as mentally stable as I am now though, so everything turned out okay.”
For Samantha, the most difficult parts were the long drive and the cost of the procedure. “Luckily, an abortion fund helped me pay for the procedure. They are incredibly awesome for that, because I was really in a bind,” she said.
“There were also protestors outside of the clinic who were mean, but there were clinic volunteers who walked with me and guarded me. I wish that people wouldn’t demonize abortion. It’s already a difficult decision to make,” she said.
“You’re already questioning yourself, but you already know what is right for yourself. I just wish people would focus on the mental health of people who are experiencing it and not just a fetus, because there’s so much more going on.”
“They stayed on the phone with me, helped me calm down and asked, ‘What do you need from us?’ That is why I am always willing to defend Planned Parenthood. They made it clear to me that they were on my side.”
“I was raised very devoutely pro-life,” Mason said. “I was taken to abortion clinics to pray there, that kind of thing. It wasn’t until after I had an experience with Planned Parenthood that I even started to consider there could be other options.”
At 21 years old, Mason found out she was pregnant inside a Walmart bathroom.
“I had just moved back in with my parents and to anyone in our Catholic faith, pregnancy would not have been something that was okay,” she said. “I had no idea what to do, because at the time I did not have health insurance.”
Mason searched Google on the subject of pregnancy and Planned Parenthood came up in her searches. “I decided to go there to see what they had to say. I thought they were going to try and push me to have an abortion, because that is what I had been taught,” she said.
“I really just needed someone to tell me that if I did have an abortion, I wouldn’t be harming what was inside of me,” she said. “I kept calling her a ‘blink’, because I actually had a pregnancy denial issue which I later found out actually does happen for some individuals.” Mason made an appointment for Planned Parenthood in Dallas.
“I shared with them I had a positive pregnancy test, but I really did not think I was pregnant,” she said. The clinic ran tests and confirmed that Mason was seven weeks along. The nurse asked what options she was considering. “I said I did want to keep the pregnancy, because I was not supposed to be able to get pregnant.”
“She smiled and said, ‘Okay,’ left the room and came back with these pamphlets,” she said. The nurse asked about Mason’s living situation and pointed her to the crisis pregnancy center in Tyler, as well as helping set her up with WIC and other resources. “I remember being very overwhelmed because she never once mentioned abortion or adoption,” she said.
“She did say there were other options down the road if I felt like I needed to explore them, but it was more general information about them,” she said. “I remember she told me, ‘If you get to a point where you realize this is not the right choice for you, you can always come back and talk to us and we can point you in a direction that would be helpful.’”
“They were the kindest people. I burst into tears in front of her, because I didn’t know if my parents were going to be okay with this.” The clinic gave Mason a hotline in case she needed to talk to anyone for counseling.
“A couple weeks later I ended up calling the clinic again, because my family reacted negatively to my pregnancy,” she said.
“They stayed on the phone with me, helped me calm down and asked, ‘What do you need from us?’ That is why I am always willing to defend Planned Parenthood. They made it clear to me that they were on my side. I never once received a bill from them. They really changed me for the better as a person. They made me a kinder and more understanding person,” she said.
“I realized I was pro-choice shortly after a friend of mine ended up choosing to terminate a pregnancy,” Mason said. “I struggled with this idea: I was supposed to still be against it because I decided to not have an abortion, but I watched what she went through, and I was there with her when she went through it. I realized that this was not an easy choice.”
“This wasn’t something that she just went into, you know, like it was nothing. It was a very complicated situation. But when I saw that she got to keep her life, I finally understood that if she had gone through with that pregnancy, her health would have been gone. She would not be who she is today,” she said.
“I hate that it required me to have firsthand experience with these choices because it shouldn’t have. But at the same time, I’m very grateful that I was given the opportunity to grow as a person and realize how important a person’s right to choose is. It’s hard to explain because some people, they won’t get it. One day I realized that my experience does not dictate the experiences of other people.”
Jess Hale is a lifelong East Texan born in Nacogdoches and graduated from Waskom High School in 2016. She is also an alumnus of Kilgore College and currently a senior at The University of Texas at Tyler studying Mass Communication. In the past, Jess has been involved with community events such as Longview LGBT Pride Festival, UNSCENE Shreveport, and efforts to organize community involvement around pro-choice issues. Jess hopes to share reproductive health options and access to people in East Texas, as well as the importance of sex education.
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