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Whole Woman's Health CEO on Texas, Trump and the future of women's health care

The Texas Tribune spoke to Whole Woman's Health founder and CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller ahead of the Friday reopening of the organization's Austin location.

Amy Hagstrom Miller is the founder, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health.

Amy Hagstrom Miller knows the fight isn’t over.

Whole Woman’s Health, the women's health organization of which she's founder and CEO, was lead plaintiff in a lawsuit, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court striking down one of Texas' most restrictive abortion laws, commonly referred to as House Bill 2, which passed in 2013.

Though it eventually won in court, Whole Woman’s Health was one of dozens to close clinics and stop services in the wake of HB 2's passage, and many have not returned since.

More than two years after shutting down, Whole Woman’s Health is reopening its Austin location as a nonprofit to take donations and be more community-supported. Miller said the clinic will have a “soft open” on Friday as the organization works to train staff and see a few patients.

The Tribune spoke to Miller ahead of the clinic's reopening. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.

When did you realize you could reopen the Austin clinic?

I had a really strong desire to reopen literally the day I had to close. Austin is where Whole Woman’s Health got its start, and we’re very connected in the community here. We are very much a part of the coalition and the women’s health action and activity that happen all throughout Texas, and especially the stuff going on in Austin. I had a really strong commitment.

Once we won in the Supreme Court, my first move was to spend some time and attention on my staff and take a deep breath because we had lived through this pretty traumatic age of uncertainty where we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to be open or closed. We had so much up-and-down and really invested in the three clinics that managed to stay open during that disruptive time, which were our clinic in Fort Worth, our clinic in San Antonio and our clinic in McAllen.

That was my first step: having everybody go on vacation, take a break and then truly invest in those three clinics that had been through so much — upgrade equipment and do some things that we had been in sort of a holding pattern about because we weren’t sure if we’d be able to stay open.

And then the second phase after that was how we could try to reopen and where it made the most sense for us to try to reopen ... Strangely enough, Austin had one of the longest waiting periods for people to get an appointment because the city of Austin has grown so much in population. Prior to HB 2, Austin had four clinics, and now until we reopen it’s only had two. Clinics in Killeen, Waco and College Station also had been closed by HB 2, so the Central Texas community had really suffered quite a bit, and so it made some sense in that way, too, for us to focus on Austin.

You were back in court with Texas not long after your win in the Supreme Court over the fetal remains burial rule. What compelled you to jump in on that?

This law here, again, it’s absolutely ridiculous, and it’s insulting to women — and interestingly, it’s not only Whole Woman’s Health Center but Austin Women’s Health Centers who are taking on this law again. I think you can really look to the independent providers in our state and Planned Parenthood, and sometimes when Planned Parenthood is not able to stand up, it’s us who are doing that. The Center for Reproductive Rights and independent providers were the lead in [both Whole Woman's Health lawsuits against the state], and we’re really proud of that.

The independent providers and the Center for Reproductive Rights, who were our attorneys, were able to secure an injunction blocking the ridiculous embryonic funeral requirements from going into effect, and that benefited every provider in the state, even those who aren’t part of the lawsuit.

Really, it benefited all of the women we served, not just the providers, and that’s really, truly, the benefit from the work that we do trying to restore justice and not have these crazy barriers get in their way of [women] exercising their right to health care. It shouldn’t be any different in Texas than it is in other parts of the country. You shouldn’t have to go through 20 extra steps just because the politicians are messing around with your rights.

With Republicans in control of both the state and federal government, where do you see women’s health going in the next four or five years?

What you need to understand is the vast majority of restrictions that get put in women’s way of exercising their right to health care happen at the state level, and much of that work is not being dictated or carried forward at the federal level. The effects that Trump and his cronies can have will be in the Supreme Court and will be in the places that we won’t be able to restore justice like we were able to do in the Whole Woman’s Health case. But most of the stuff happens at the state level.

For years and years we had Trump-like people in charge of our state. I feel like it’s, on one level, more of the same, and on another level, we have the strongest win in a generation in the Supreme Court reaffirming not only women’s right to abortion as codified by [the Roe v. Wade decision] — Whole Woman’s Health is even stronger. Whole Woman’s Health says that they can’t insert political wishes between a woman and her right to choose without substantiating it with medical evidence, not just a belief. It really proves that they can’t block a woman’s access unnecessarily, that she can’t have an undue burden.

The things that we achieved in Whole Woman’s Health makes our position stronger not only in Texas but across the entire country to block this kind of interference from happening. We’re in a much better position than we have been in pretty much my entire career, especially since I’ve come to Texas.

Do you feel like you’re in a better place partly because more people are getting involved with reproductive health issues?

I think more people are involved in general. I think since HB 2, more Texans are awake. I think since Trump was elected more people have come out of the woodwork to step up. But I do think the Whole Woman's Health decision gives our movement great strength. It’s already been used in 10 different states just in six months to repeal [laws on abortion restrictions] in 10 different states beyond Texas’ border. That’s tremendous.

I think that the state attorney generals all across the conservative states understand this decision is going to be used to block future restrictions but also to repeal some of the other restrictions that are on the books across the country. I think we’ve only just begun to see the effects.

With Trump getting to have his Supreme Court pick, do you feel that there could be an end to Roe v. Wade?

Absolutely not. I was actually one of the people the Democrats asked to testify against Gorsuch in the Senate hearing, but it didn’t change the balance of the courts. He just took Scalia’s seat. Even if we had our Whole Woman’s Health case go in front of the court right now, we still would win. We won 5-4. Trump doesn’t have that much power in that short of a time to change the balance of the court. I think we’ve got to wake up and be sure he doesn’t get that opportunity because that will affect many generations.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court handed Texas abortion providers a major victory by overturning Texas’ 2013 abortion restrictions. 
  • U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks ruled Texas cannot require health providers to bury or cremate fetuses, delivering another blow to state leaders in the reproductive rights debate.
  • Texas health officials quietly proposed the fetal remains rule in July, just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's controversial 2013 law that placed strong restrictions on abortion.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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