AUSTIN (AP) — Hundreds rallied outside the Texas Capitol on Thursday for Planned Parenthood, an organization vilified by many conservatives who work inside the dome.
Activists, largely dressed in pink and waving blue-and-white signs declaring “Texas Needs Planned Parenthood,” staged a flash mob to the Beyonce song “Run the World (Girls)” and then cheered as top Democratic lawmakers decried their Republican colleagues’ “ideological assault” on the organization and women’s health in general.
Following the demonstration, the crowd fanned out to legislative offices for meetings with individual lawmakers as part of the group’s annual lobbying day. But such efforts have rarely paid off, as many Texas legislators view Planned Parenthood as Public Enemy No. 1, claiming it promotes abortion in a state where the public overwhelmingly opposes the practice.
Their distaste for the group has been put into law. In 2011, the Legislature voted to bar all state funding to groups affiliated with abortion providers. That led to Planned Parenthood being booted from the Texas Women’s Health Program, which provides care to about 130,000 low-income women, even though the organization was the initiative’s largest provider.
In this session, a bill in the Senate would ban health educators linked to Planned Parenthood from providing sex education in public schools. The group says it only does so in a handful of Texas school districts and only with the permission of the local community and school board officials.
Supporters of that bill have also targeted sex education materials on the Planned Parenthood website, claiming the group promotes teen sex as a way to increase abortions and generate more profits.
But those at the rally dismissed such measures as sexism and noted that tens of thousands of Texans rely on Planned Parenthood for family planning services, cancer screenings and other care that isn’t related to abortions.
“I know that if men could get pregnant they would have birth control pills in every chewing gum packet,” said Rep. Senfronia Thompson. The Houston Democrat has spent four decades in the Texas Legislature and is among its most respected members from either party.
Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, said she relied on Planned Parenthood for care when she was pregnant and near penniless, and that that support kept her in school and eventually helped her earn a Harvard law degree.
“Will our conversations here in the Capitol today make an immediate change? Probably not,” she said. “But does that mean that we shouldn’t be here having this conservation with our legislators? Absolutely not.”
Davis said births being paid for by Medicaid now cost Texas taxpayers more than $1 billion annually, a figure that will continue to rise because it’s harder for Planned Parenthood to provide birth control to women. She urged those lobbying to tell lawmakers opposing the group doesn’t make fiscal sense.
Republicans hold majorities in both houses, as well as every elected statewide office. Austin Democratic Rep. Donna Howard said many in her party are pushing to restore funding to Planned Parenthood, but know they don’t stand a chance until “we finally get some reason back in this Capitol.”
Planned Parenthood filed a series of lawsuits to stop the 2011 measure, but after months of legal wrangling was still excluded from the Texas Women’s Health Program starting in January.
Texas officials provided a list of doctors and clinics to program participants as alternatives to visiting Planned Parenthood clinics, but Democrats say there aren’t enough providers to meet demand. The Health and Human Services Commission counters that it has recruited enough providers that the Texas Women’s Health Program now has more capacity than when Planned Parenthood participated.
Some of Thursday’s loudest applause came when native Texan and actress Stephanie March of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” fame told demonstrators: “I’m tired of Texas being crazy.”
“I’m tired of Texas thwarting the health of its own citizenry,” March said, “and I’m tired of Texas playing politics with women’s lives.”
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