In Texas, where abortion is already a crime, more roadblocks to access could come
Look closely and a faint outline of the Whole Women’s Health sign is all that remains of the only abortion clinic in McAllen, Texas.
It had to close last summer. The building is now owned by an anti-abortion group – a literal symbol of the end of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to vote in the state.
“I’m numb,” said Cathy Torres of the Frontera Fund, an organization that used to help 30 to 40 people a month travel within Texas or to nearby states to have abortions.
“People have always had abortions,” Torres said. “And they will continue to have them. It’s just a matter of how and where.”
After the US Supreme Court overturned constitutional protections for abortion in the June 2022 Dobbs ruling, Texas’ Trigger Ban banned almost all abortions in that state a month later.
As a new Texas term begins, anti-abortion lawmakers say their work on restricting access is not over.
“I am concerned about travel restrictions for abortion treatments. I think that’s what they’ll pursue next. I just feel it in my bones,” Torres said.
Now a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas is to decide whether mifepristone, a drug used in medical abortions, could be made illegal statewide.
“I’m concerned about these fights that we’re going to see,” said Rochelle Garza, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “[Battles] to medical abortion, plan B, access to basic contraception.”
CBC went to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to see what the restricted access actually looks like.
One of the most restrictive laws in the US
The Rio Grande Valley in south Texas has long been at the center of the struggle for access to abortion. As of June 2022, Whole Women’s Health served the vast area and population of more than one million, including mostly Latinas and many undocumented women.
Frontera Fund is part of a U.S. federal class-action lawsuit filed days after the Texas ban on withdrawals went into effect, seeking an injunction against possible prosecution for helping people access legal abortions in other states.
“There is only one big risk, actually a criminal risk. I’m literally not even exaggerating,” Torres said.
Frontera Fund has reopened its hotline but is limiting what it can tell callers to information available online. Torres said she worries about legal ramifications if she gives out too much information.
“We say it’s Google with compassion because we’re not just a random search engine. We’ve done this work before, so we know what information people are looking for.
“You know, we understand that people are afraid.”
Texas passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States before the Dobbs decision. Senate Bill 8 passed in 2021, restricting abortions at six weeks gestation and the detection of heart activity.
A law also passed in 2021 said that 30 days after Roe v. Wade would reinstate a 1925 law making all abortions illegal in Texas unless the mother’s life is in danger. There is no exception for rape or incest.
However, there are networks trying to help women in restricted states like Texas.
Over the border for tablets
Sandra Cardona of Necesito Abortar, a volunteer organization in Monterrey, Mexico, said 400 women reached out to her in December asking for help. Networks in Tijuana and Guanajuato City are also active.
Cardona helps women access abortion pills in Mexico and coordinates the shipment of medicines to the United States. Mexico will decriminalize abortion in 2021.
“We accompany them in their processes, in their decisions. We are with them and we are listening,” she explained.
Last year her organization spent more than $8,000 on misoprostol, a drug that can be used to induce miscarriage. It is often used in combination with mifepristone for medical abortions.
“Most of those who ask about the legal situation are a bit afraid.”
CLOCK | How people deal with a near total abortion ban:
In Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, just a few minutes’ walk from the Texas border, people can buy misoprostol over the counter without a prescription. Typically used to treat ulcers, so not illegal in Texas, the World Health Organization says misoprostol is 70 to 90 percent effective and safe for self-administered abortions, depending on how far along the pregnancy is.
Dozens of pharmacies line the streets, selling everything from Xanax to Ozempic. CBC News bought several boxes of misoprostol at prices ranging from $30 to $80 a box.
The instructions also varied; One pharmacist told us to ask our doctor how to take it, another said a pregnant woman should take the pills every few hours until she starts bleeding. Pharmacists also tell us that more and more women are coming to the area to buy misoprostol.
In April 2022, Lizelle Herrera, a 26-year-old woman in the Rio Grande Valley, was charged with murder after nurses at a local Rio Grande Valley hospital suspected her of causing a miscarriage. The charges were eventually dropped.
“I’m concerned about the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes that we’ve seen in our communities,” said Nancy Cárdenas Peña of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.
“How People Can Be Incarcerated for Pregnancy Outcomes Like Miscarriage or Abortion Drugs.”
The legislative battle continues
Peña is spending this legislature in Austin, Texas, pursuing bills that are tabled regarding access to health care and abortion. So far, more than 25 abortion-related bills have been filed, she says.
“We have major concerns about some of the bills that we’ve seen. We have pressure from the state to encourage district attorneys from other counties to prosecute cases outside of their own counties,” Peña said.
Two bills in particular, she said, are designed to counter promises by prosecutors in five counties and districts, including Dallas, San Antonio and Corpus Christi, that they will not press charges for abortion crimes.
Democrats are also introducing bills such as SD 227 to repeal all laws prohibiting abortion or SB 122 to include an exception for abortion in cases of rape or incest.
However, the current abortion ban has made it difficult for pregnant doctors and emergency physicians to treat them.
“We are now in a position where, as part of our practice as medical professionals, we could be charged with felonies and crimes that our professional liability insurance would not cover,” said Dr. Alison Haddock, board member of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
The group released a statement when Roe v. Wade and was concerned about the implications for treating pregnant patients.
“It creates a really difficult scenario for all the doctors where they’re like, ‘Okay, I know your health is at risk. When is your life at risk?'” Haddock said.
In Texas, there have been cases of miscarriages or miscarriages in pregnant women, and doctors sent them home as an emergency. Some have become septic.
“They could get to the point where, yes, their life is in danger and the disease has progressed too far and you can’t treat them safely,” Haddock said.
“That’s why I’m worried that pregnant people will lose their lives because of it.”
The Texas Freedom Caucus is a group of Republican lawmakers pushing for even tougher anti-abortion measures. Texas State Representative Matt Shaheen is a member.
“We have a lot to celebrate in the state of Texas,” Shaheen said.
The Texas Freedom Caucus sent threatening letters to a Texas law firm offering to pay employees who travel abroad for abortion treatments.
“We wanted to make them aware that they need to take a serious look at what they’re doing and make sure they’re not breaking state law,” Shaheen said.
“We have taken precautions to ensure that doctors outside of the state of Texas do not offer abortion pills and the like.”
Shaheen said he would also support a move toward recognizing fetal personality in the state.
Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and Missouri already have such laws, which have charged women with endangering a child’s life if they miscarry or use illegal substances. The advocacy group Pregnancy Justice documented 1,331 such cases from 2006 to 2020. Black women with low incomes are often accused.
“Texas has always been an example of the conservative movement and pushing these very radical laws forward,” said Rochelle Garza, who was running for midterms 2022 for Texas attorney general. She lost to Ken Paxton, the Republican incumbent.
“I don’t think they’re stopping,” Garza said.
“I think it’s very clear where the anti-choice movement is going. And they want to make sure that every state bans access to abortion treatment, that every state prevents someone from going to get that treatment in another state. It’s not you, we’re going to stop and we have to fight back.”
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