Texas has the sixth highest rate of incarceration of women in the world, according to Alicia Welch, director of policy and planning at the Lone Star Justice Alliance.

Welch spoke alongside two other panelists at the Women’s Healthcare Policy panel hosted by the American Association of University Women and the Baker Institute Student Forum on Oct. 25.

Izzy Patten, co-President of AAUW, said the aim of the panel was to provide a platform to discuss health care policy issues that are relevant to women on Rice’s campus and in Houston.

“This is a topic that should be informed by a lot of research and knowledge,” Patten said. “We thought it was important to hear from these professional women who all know a lot and can speak to the experiences of diverse populations of women.”

Over 50 students and community members attended the event. The panel covered issues ranging from incarceration and mental health to family planning and reproductive rights in Texas.

“In Texas jails, 35 percent of women suffer from a type of mental illness; however, 40 percent of those women have not been diagnosed and are not receiving treatment due to inadequate mental health care policies in Texas and dramatically decreased funding over the last few decades,” Welch said.

According to Welch, adverse physical and mental health effects due to incarceration increase this population’s risk of death by a factor of 5.5.

“It is really important that we start to better address the needs of these women so that we can identify the biggest contributors to incarceration,” Welch added. “Health and incarceration are linked in the way that health and poverty are linked. As women experience worse health outcomes, there is a greater risk of incarceration, and vice versa.”

In 2011 in a legislative session, about 75 percent of funding for the family planning program administered by the state was cut, resulting in about 100 closed clinics, said Kami Geoffray, CEO of The Women’s Health and Family Planning Organization of Texas.

“We saw a huge decline in the use of contraception and an increase in unplanned pregnancies and medicaid births,” Geoffray said. “The effort targeted Planned Parenthood, but the effects are much broader than what they intended.”

According to Elena Marks, a nonresident fellow in health policy at the Baker Institute, the state of Texas currently has a maternal mortality rate that is three times the national average and higher than many sub-saharan African countries due to factors such as loss of access to family planning and contraception.

“Contraception is one of the 20 most important public health developments in the entire 20th century,” Marks said. “It’s on the list next to seatbelts, immunization, and clean drinking water.” “The sad irony is that today we could make safe and effective long term and reversible contraceptives available to all of the women who need them. But we have set ourselves up in a system where that is just virtually impossible to do.”

Marks also expressed concerns regarding current public health attacks on the federal level, as federal funding for Title 10, the primary source of funding for low income women to have family planning services, is at risk of being eliminated.

“Title 10 is a budget item that has increased historically over time through Democratic and Republican presidents, non-controversially,” Marks said. “All of a sudden it is under attack. The changes in policy described here tonight and the data that has come out has shown the egregious repercussions of these regressive policy decisions.”

Meredith McCain, secretary of the AAUW and chair of informal events for BISF, said she was satisfied with the outcome of the event.

“The current debate on women’s health policy is an ideological battle. I loved that these women brought well-researched data to back up their claims and show this is an area we need to work on,” McCain said.

Navya Kumar, a Hanszen College junior, said she enjoyed the panel.

“These women speak volumes to the sheer knowledge and passion people in this field have and need to have to work for reproductive rights and reproductive justice in Texas,” Kumar said.

Marks encouraged taking the time to reflect on the current state of women’s health policy and the abysmal state it is in, especially in Texas.

“At the state and federal level, you are living in a time when women’s opportunities are being set backwards by decades,” Marks said. “Our future is at stake and increasingly in the hands of people who may make decisions we don’t agree with and that aren’t in our best interest. If we don't act before we get to that point, it'll be too late.”