They don’t exaggerate when they say Texas pride runs deep—like most Texans, I’m proud of our rodeos, breakfast tacos, barbecue, margaritas, culture, traditions and friendly folks. But a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control (DCD) shed light on a big piece missing from the pride equation: women’s health. Because everything is bigger in Texas—including the number of STI infections and the rate of maternal mortality. And nobody is talking about it.
The CDC released a bombshell in October when they announced the number of people in the U.S. with three major sexually transmitted diseases (chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis) had reached an all-time high. The majority of these cases, 65 percent, occur in those under the age of 25—and the hefty majority are women. These facts are extremely relevant given that STIs can lead to chronic pain and fertility problems and can be passed onto children, causing stillbirths and birth defects.
My home state has the third highest rate of STDs: 22.1 per 100,000, bested only by Louisiana and Florida. Austin, San Antonio and Dallas make the list of the top 10 cities with the highest rates. Shocked by these findings, I searched for how our news coverage services reacted to the topic. Despite our state carrying a high burden, I found very little.
I should not have been surprised. Women’s health and family planning has never been a priority for funding or legislative action in the Lone Star State. After all, women’s voices are rarely heard: we make up only 18 percent of the Texas legislature, and when we’re up against 171 white, conservative men, how could we stand a chance?
Texas has recently come into the limelight with the Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, which ruled against the Texas TRAP law requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Put forward under the conservative guise of “improving women’s health,” the law in question, HB2, in reality was aimed to decrease access to abortion clinics across the state. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of visitors to these clinics coming for free STD testing and contraceptive counseling. We are one of the few states that still teaches abstinence only education, despite 51.6 percent of Texas adolescents under the age of 17 having ever had sexual intercourse—53.8 percent of whom did not use contraception. Clearly, these family planning policies are outdated and no longer serve the needs of today’s Texans.
And despite our regressive stance on family planning education and access, we were still shocked when another recent CDC report came out saying the maternal mortality rate in the state of Texas had doubled. These numbers are the highest in the United States—and similar to those of Chile, Mexico and Russia. Translation: we don’t even match the rates of developed countries. Meanwhile, local legislators questioned “how this could have happened;” newspapers said they couldn’t “find reasons” behind the trends. Really? 8Every woman in this state can tell you why.
Women in Texas have the second-highest rate of unintended pregnancies, highest number of women in in need of contraceptive service, highest teen pregnancy rate and the highest percent of women between 15 and 44 who are uninsured. Our state is in a family planning crisis. While our state legislature twiddle their thumbs wondering how things ever got to this point, women are paying the price with their lives, their health and the wellbeing of their own children.
For a state that takes pride in many things its history, diversity, food, music, size, landscapes, people and friendliness, it’s high time we take pride in the health of our women.
Lauren Caton is a recent graduate of The University of Texas at Austin and misses her home state dearly. She is a current Master of Public Health student at UC Berkeley in the Maternal and Child Health concentration. She hopes to return with the knowledge needed to equip women with the power to make their own reproductive health choices and advocate for policy change.