I spent Valentine's Day 2007 at a community center in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. I was there with a colleague from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) where I was working as an organizer. We'd come to facilitate a reproductive justice advocacy training with a group of local women. They varied in age from early 20s to 50s, and had been gathered by a group of local promotoras--health promoters--who had been working in rural, isolated trailer park-like communities (known as colonias) with no municipal resources (running water, sewer systems, trash collection).
At this point the organization had done five such trainings in different parts of the country, but we knew this one would be different. It was our most rural effort to date, and it was also going to be entirely in Spanish. The women who made up this group of 25 were mostly recent immigrants from the Mexican towns just miles away across the border. We were unsure how the conversations, in particular the one about access to abortion, would go.
When we talked about abortion access, the first comments were, not surprisingly, about religion. One woman shared that her priest spoke against abortion during mass. But it didn't take long for other kinds of comments to come forth. One woman talked about wanting to make sure her daughter could take care of herself. Another described how she supported a friend during an abortion. When the conversation ended, it was clear that while their opinions about abortion varied, few of the women in the room would be willing to impose their personal beliefs on other women. I walked away from that week reaffirmed in my belief that the stereotypes about the conservatism of the Latino community were just that--stereotypes. The reality was much more nuanced and complex.
I no longer work for NLIRH, but their work in Texas has continued. A new poll they commissioned in late October supports what I experienced that week in South Texas--Latino attitudes on abortion are much less polemic than we're encouraged to believe. When it comes down to it, the majority of Latino likely voters don't think politicians should be able to interfere in a woman's decision regarding abortion.
The Texas-based survey was conducted by an independent research firm that reached 603 likely Latino voters by landline or cell phone. It was offered in English or Spanish. In their report, NLIRH compares the findings with a national survey conducted by a different research firm in 2011 that also examined Latino likely voters' attitudes on abortion.
Across the board, on a variety of questions regarding abortion, contraception and political interference, the majority of respondents were in favor of access to abortion and contraception. Some highlights of the findings:
- Seventy eight percent agreed with this statement: "A woman has the right to make her own personal decisions about abortion without politicians interfering." (Sixty three percent strongly agreed, and 70 percent of the Republicans polled also agreed with the statement.)
- Three quarters of those surveyed agreed with this statement: "We should not judge someone who feels they are not ready to become a parent."
- Eighty percent said they would give at least "a little" support "if a close friend or family member told you she had an abortion." (Fifty eight percent said they would offer a lot of support.)
- Sixty percent agreed with this statement: "Even though some church leaders take a position against abortion, when it comes to the law, I believe it should remain legal."
- Seventy six percent agreed with this statement: "I consider birth control part of basic health care that should be covered by health insurance, no matter where you work."
The timing and geographic focus of this polling is important. Texas in particular has faced an onslaught of cuts and attacks on access to women's reproductive health at the hands of Republican state lawmakers. Family planning funding has been significantly reduced, directly impacting the ability of women like those I met in 2007 to access basic reproductive health care services. Clinics in their neighborhoods have shut down or they've stopped offering free or low-cost care to the community, which is mostly undocumented and uninsured. Texas is also a politically conservative state with a huge Latino population.
Initial reports of early voter turnout in Texas suggest that recent registration and get-out-the-vote efforts are working. Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who came to prominence through her fight against significant anti-abortion measures passed in the state, has been a driving force behind the campaign to increase turnout. El Paso County, a heavily Latino area, saw a three-fold increase in early voter turnout as compared to the 2010 midterm elections.
This polling suggests that Latino voters may be turned off by the heavy-handed conservative approach to limiting reproductive rights. This could change how Latinos respond to the Republican party, even in red states like Texas. As part of the NLIRH polling, respondents were provided a brief overview of the recent legislative changes. They learned that In the past three years, politicians across the country have passed 205 laws to make it harder for a woman to access abortion care. Then they were asked: "Do you think these laws are a step in the right direction or a step in the wrong direction?" Fifty eight percent replied "the wrong direction."