On July 18, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a contentious bill into law that prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and adds new regulations for clinics that may shut down most abortion providers in the state. And despite the near-certainty of a court challenge, the Texas House has introduced another bill that would prevent abortion after five weeks of pregnancy.
The media have speculated the legislation will soon send Texans over the border to Mexico in search of a black market for abortion procedures and pharmaceuticals. “At least one sector will gain major business from Americans under the new regulations,” according to ThinkProgress, “pharmacies and doctors that provide abortions and cheap abortion-inducing drugs in Mexico.”
But what’s even more likely, local experts say, is that Mexican women who previously crossed the border in search of safe abortions will now be stranded with few good options in a culture that still hews deeply conservative and Catholic.
Abortion expert from Ibis Reproductive Health Daniel Grossman says, “Legal abortion services are very difficult to access outside of Mexico City. Physicians and hospitals are reluctant to say that a woman is eligible for a legal abortion, often because the eligibility criteria are unclear.” Physicians are also rarely trained in modern, safe abortion techniques, he says.
According to Ms. Magazine, in the last five years, 127 women have been put on trial for having abortions in Mexico—despite abortion being legal in Mexico City since 2007. Puebla, a central Mexican state, aims to criminalize women who are alleged to have had an illegal abortion. One woman went to an emergency room in the state because of hemorrhaging and was arrested after the staff there speculated that she had ingested the abortion drug Misoprostol. Punishment for having an abortion, in different Mexican states, ranges from months in prison to community service time. And women’s activist groups in Mexico allege that despite abortion being legal countrywide in cases of rape and in all states except for three (Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Querétaro) when pregnancy may complicate the life of a mother, women often don’t receive access to services.
Eugenia Lopez Uribe, a Mexican activist and executive director of Balance, which fights for abortion rights but also helps to give women financial means to have an abortion and even aids in their travel to Mexico City, says the fight for abortion rights and decriminalization has been a long one.
“The women’s movement in Mexico has been fighting for the right to choose since the ’70s. We have had small achievements during those years but the law in Mexico City has been the biggest one,” she says.
According to Austin ABC affiliate KVUE, prior to the passing of the bill, women's groups such as pro-choice group GIRE and Uribe’s organization MARIA from Mexico City said, “We are cheering on the senator from Texas,” in reference to Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis. Neither state nor federal representatives with constituencies along the border could be reached for comment.
Uribe said she isn’t sure where or whom the women who went to Texas for an abortion visited in the past, but says they will surely find a way forward, legislation or no. “Some are coming now to Mexico City, but many are still going to the U.S.,” she says.
“[Abortions] are things they just don’t talk about,” says Lester Minto, a doctor at Reproductive Services, an abortion clinic in Harlingen, Texas, about 10 miles from the Mexico/Texas line. Minto says he often received many referrals from Mexican gynecologists, who sent him patients speaking little or no English and desperate for help. (And it’s not just small border towns—the El Paso location of Reproductive Services reportedly draws 30 percent of its patients from Mexico.)
Minto says he fears what is going to happen—on both sides of the border—when the new regulations are in place. From jugs of bleach to coat hanger and herb-based abortions, he’s seen it all. The desperation that takes over, he says, is impossible to understand until a woman finds herself in that situation. Since Perry signed the new abortion bill into law, “dozens and dozens” of women have come to Minto and thanked him for giving them an abortion in the past. These women now, he says, are lawyers and teachers who were allowed to live their lives to their fullest potential. “It made me realize that I’ve helped people,” he says.
With the new regulations, Minto and others worry about the underground alternatives that Mexican women will likely resort to. Abortion expert and college professor Leslie Reagan took part in a historical study about abortions that tracked women traveling from Mexico to California to have medical procedures. Mexican women would travel to America because they believed that abortions in America were safer thanks to more advancements in medicine and regulation with health care—and for many women in northern Mexico, a journey to Texas or California was much cheaper and shorter than a journey to Mexico City.
Reagan’s concern is that the border may begin to “revert” to what it was pre–Roe v. Wade—making a more dangerous environment all around. While she says there is a chance that abortion pills manufactured in Mexico will become less dangerous as the market expands (both in that country and in Texas), Mexican and American women may end up reverting to tactics plucked straight from the 1960s. Back then, she says, women would have boyfriends beat them—among other ways to induce abortion—and would show up at the hospital, bleeding profusely and sometimes still pregnant. “That’s what happened in the U.S. when it was against the law,” she says.
Grossman says, “There are definitely reports of women being jailed for inducing an abortion. I do not know how many—but the fact that there are any is a horrible human rights violation.”
When asked why the journey of Mexican women to the United States has not been part of the conversation, Uribe says: “There is very little information about women that migrate, the main part of the conversation is on men, drug dealers, feminicide in the border. The main part of the migration process is dark for the eyes of the public opinion.”